A preferred model of practice?

This week I went to the National Learning Conference, part of the Government’s Social Work Innovation Programme - a great event to be part of.

What struck me was the large number of social work practitioners attending, and not just directors of children’s services. Of course, excellent leadership is vital. But, it’s the front line that moves the profession forward and makes positive changes in children’s lives. Their contribution and buy-in are invaluable. So this was really good to see.

During the panel session I took part in, I stressed, and will do so again here, that Ofsted does not stand in the way of innovation. When it’s done well, innovation moves social work on. New ideas and ways of working are vital for any profession striving to improve. And we want to support innovation as much as possible – not stifle it.

Models of practice are a key area of social work innovation. As an inspectorate, we’re often asked to give a view on what works best or if we have a preferred model. For those not familiar with the term, when we talk about ‘models of practice’, we mean a particular way of or approach to working with children and families.

It’s certainly heartening that so many local authorities (LAs) are committed to implementing new approaches. However, as with any new initiative, this can often be a challenging process.

Here, I’d like to reiterate not only some of the good practice we’ve found through inspection when it comes to implementing new models of practice, but also raise some of the challenges this process can bring. And, most importantly, how these can be overcome.

A preferred model?

Perhaps I should start with some mythbusting. Ofsted has no preferred model of practice. We do not endorse one over another. What we look for, as in all areas of inspection, is the impact the model has on children’s progress and experiences.

We’ve found significant variation in how well some models are implemented. What is clear from inspection though is that any model used is more likely to be effective if a ‘whole system’ approach is taken to implementation, and staff are given significant support to use it from leaders at every level.

Having a model of practice that is understood and embedded across the whole local authority is a development that we absolutely welcome. The approach taken by Leeds City Council is just one excellent example of this.

Models that set clear expectations and have a consistent approach build staff confidence. They improve the quality of assessment, intervention, and direct work with children and their families. This means that in LAs that are struggling, this can be the lever that encourages staff to stay.

Building on solid foundations

Inspection tells us that models need to be implemented on solid foundations. In short – if you are going to innovate, don’t forget the basics!

Areas that get basic practice right are most likely to succeed in implementing their chosen model. This echoes findings from the Innovation Programme, too.

Some key ingredients include:

  • a stable workforce
  • manageable caseloads
  • effective management oversight and frequent supervision
  • highly visible leaders and managers
  • a strong culture of learning
  • good qualitative assurance, performance monitoring and performance management arrangements
  • mature partnerships with other agencies.

Alongside an effective implementation strategy, these elements allow for a coherent model that supports social workers to respond effectively to children and families.

Benefits and risks

There are a number of benefits when models of practice are implemented well. We know that this allows more effective and purposeful work with children and their families, such as:

  • improved and more dynamic assessment
  • clearer identification of strengths and risks
  • improved focus on the child’s day-to-day lived experience
  • better understanding of concerns and what needs to be achieved by parents
  • improved social worker morale, supporting staff retention
  • greater focus on practice and learning
  • more confident social workers.

Conversely though, some new initiatives can lead to a loss of focus on what should be our core task – ensuring good quality frontline services to children and families. Where implementation isn’t effective, we see inconsistent use or misinterpretation of the chosen model. This can lead to over optimism and a lack of effective planning for children and families. In some cases, models are used in a mechanistic way – processes are followed, but without the application of professional knowledge, skills, and judgement. No approach can work effectively under these circumstances.

This is why focusing on the basics is crucial. I also can’t stress enough the importance of continuously monitoring the impact of any new model.

No area is always perfect, and when implementing large-scale changes, there will be mistakes and stumbling blocks along the way. It’s the actions LAs take to identify and address these issues that are key, and what Ofsted will be looking at closely.

The secret of success?

Consistency: It is essential that social workers are able to build effective and consistent relationships with children and families. Our description of good in the ILACS framework sets this out clearly.

The model of practice used by the tri-borough partnership (Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham councils) places a high value on relationship building between children and their social workers. This delivers services that are consistently excellent and allows social workers to remain with children throughout their journey across all stages of social care intervention.

Joint working: Joint targeted area inspections (JTAI) show the importance of agencies and professionals working together, and how this improves assessment planning, intervention and decision-making for families.

Unfortunately, not all models of practice focus on this the way they should. In some LAs, there are still barriers to effective multi-agency working - for example too little involvement from adult mental health services.

As I’ve mentioned before, risks to children and their families can be more easily missed if agencies that work with them are not involved in joint strategy discussions.

Whole family focus: Models that take a whole family approach - addressing all needs and risks with individuals in a family holistically – tend to be particularly successful.

As we identified in our recent report on domestic abuse, this approach leads to more effective intervention and assessment. We’ll pick up this theme in our JTAI overview report on the neglect of older children, which will be published later this year.

So, as I’ve set out, embedding a new model can be a challenging process. It’s essential that there is always a strong focus on the basics of practice. Also crucial is a really strong quality assurance process that measures impact. This includes preparing for unintended consequences - so that action to respond to these can be taken quickly. Ongoing support to staff and commitment from other agencies are essential too.

We really welcome the debate about effective practice and that more LAs have a strong commitment to implementing particular approaches. To stress again – Ofsted isn’t interested in the model you use. We are interested in what’s good for children, and the impact your work has on their lives.

The level of enthusiasm at this week’s event from those present was great to see. Much of what I saw and heard gave me real optimism and confidence for the future – I know we are in good hands.

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