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What have we learned about good social work systems and practice?

Children's Social Care Innovation Programme Thematic Report 1...

This report considers what we have learned from Wave 1 of the Innovation Programme about good social work systems and practice in children’s social care, based on a synthesis of the evidence from evaluations of 17 projects in this area. The lessons from these evaluations point to a number of recommendations for future innovations. Services are encouraged to self-audit against these recommendations, using the tool provided in Appendix 2.

Although the 17 projects in this theme varied in their contexts and approaches, they had some common features and goals. Several were underpinned by an explicit model. Core principles reflected in virtually all projects were: maintaining clarity of purpose with a clear focus on the child; taking a strengths based approach; engaging with families as partners in defining and resolving their own difficulties; seeing the role of the worker as an agent of change; enabling practitioners to work directly with families and equipping them with the skills, tools and specialist expertise to do so; recognising the role of the wider organisation in creating the conditions and culture in which good practice can be maintained.

Almost all the projects were successfully implemented, delivering their plans in the timescale. Furthermore, most evaluations reported some positive change in social work practice and improvements in the experience of families. Although the assessment of outcomes was limited in the time available, there were positive indications, including examples of reductions in the numbers of children looked after and in the use of child protection plans. There were also promising signs of cost savings for some projects.

The evaluations provide a rich source of intelligence on what constitutes good social work practice and how this can be developed. The key ingredients include: a shared understanding of good practice – usually supported by a clearly communicated model or set of principles; confidence, skills and tools to assess and work with families; an ability to engage the whole family in ways which combine empathy, authority and clarity of goals; cultural competence.

Common features of projects which appear to be successful in developing these ingredients include:

  • multi-disciplinary teams combining children’s social workers with workers who have expertise on issues affecting adults in families such as substance misuse or mental ill health
  • flexible use of non-social work qualified staff including highly skilled administrators and family support workers. They have also developed their use of volunteers
  • effective supervision and support including the availability of consultancy and group case discussion
  • work allocation so that practitioners have caseloads which are manageable and managed
  • opportunities to develop skills, through a combination of training, a shared practice framework, management expectations, peer and group supervision and coaching

The conditions which help to establish and sustain these features include: a culture of leadership embedded in the system; strong multi-agency commitment, effective communication and promotion of a shared ethos; alignment of processes such as IT and recording systems and good use of data for planning and performance monitoring.