NO … not a new Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn book … read on :
**Radical plans aim to give power back to frontline social workers.
A new system modelled on the Netherlands Buurtzorg approach could increase the time spent with families by 60%.**
Plans have been drawn up to revolutionise social work with children and families, giving the UK’s frontline social workers autonomy to manage their own cases and freeing them from tiers of management and stifling bureaucracy. Time spent with clients could rise by as much as 60%, it is claimed, with average caseloads cut by a fifth – at no additional cost to the system.
The radical plans are modelled on the Buurtzorg approach to district nursing in the Netherlands and have been developed over the past seven months by work among a group of more than 80 people, including social workers, academics, parents and family rights activists.
The resulting 63-page, fully costed report, A Blueprint for Children’s Social Care, is published today. The proposed model is expected to be piloted next year by a few English councils with the blessing of the Department for Education (DfE).
If the trials are successful, they could presage the biggest shake-up in social work practice for a generation, and stem the exodus of social workers from a job that many see as trapped by a stultifying, ultra-defensive approach to child protection.
Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, the umbrella group for children’s charities, says: “Buurtzorg has been a source of real inspiration to us. It’s a radical challenge to the ‘command and control’ models of service management and delivery, something that genuinely places people and relationships front and centre. It’s exciting exploring what it could look like in child and family social work.”
Surveys of social workers consistently find widespread frustration with process and red tape. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has suggested staff are spending “close to 80%” of their time on computers or paperwork and little more than 20% on direct contact with children and families.
Ryan Wise, a social worker and practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence, who is one of the blueprint’s authors, thinks the profession is “a little bit lost”. He says: “I come across so many social workers just fed up with the bureaucracy. It’s a culture of blame and it peddles the defensiveness – the ‘getting your forms done’ – that in turn peddles the culture.”
For social workers like Daniel Comach, a team manager with Lambeth council in south London, this culture undermines the contribution of skilled social work. “It’s almost as if we’ve adopted an orange-squash approach – we dilute the professional practice as much as we possibly can,” he says. High turnover of disaffected staff leads to frontline roles being filled by those with limited experience, often agency workers, while the most qualified are promoted into oversight roles “one, two, three management layers away”.
Comach was among a group of social workers who travelled to the Netherlands to see Buurtzorg in action. The model is operated by more than 900 self-managing teams, each of up to a dozen community nurses and associated workers, supported by 20 regional coaches and just 50 back-office staff. Patient satisfaction scores are the highest of any Dutch healthcare provider, and the approach is being taken into children’s social work through Buurtzorg Jong (BJ), now established in four municipalities.
When the social workers visited one of the BJ sites, they were struck by what Wise describes as the “very chilled” mood by comparison with that of a UK team office. “It was just a lot less anxious,” says Phoebe Savidge, a consultant social worker with a north London council.
“There’s so much fear and anxiety going on here, which is the least appropriate context for children’s social work. It was really exciting to be around a service where that wasn’t the main thing.”
To try to recreate the Buurtzorg spirit in UK social work, the blueprint proposes creating autonomous “family-facing teams” of eight social workers, each of whom would be responsible for 14 children in about 10 families within a given patch. The current average caseload in England is 17.4 children.
A central referral team would allocate cases; an “enabler” team would undertake administration; and an “insight” team would provide advice, coaching and perhaps commissioning of specialist services. The only management tier would be an overarching strategy team to offer checks and balances on decisions, sign off high-cost interventions and take responsibility for overall culture.
With several layers of management stripped out, the restructuring would be cost-neutral after transition costs estimated at a total of £5m-£7m per council over three years. Having run a test of the model in one unnamed council, the report estimates that the time social workers would spend in direct contact with children and families would rise from 16% of the working week to 25% because of there being no need to report to managers and less travel.This could make a critical difference to the quality of work, returning practice closer to that envisaged in the Children Act – 30 years old this month – and avoiding tragedies like the death of baby Peter Connelly in 2007.
Katie Rose, a co-author of the blueprint and programme manager at the Centre for Public Impact, a thinktank founded by Boston Consulting Group, says some councils like Leeds, Hertfordshire and Hackney in east London have already “tinkered” with the existing social work model with positive results. But a more fundamental upheaval is needed, she believes.
Private presentations of the blueprint to council and practice leaders have found “real appetite” for the approach, she says, and the DfE is “really interested”.
There will inevitably be suspicion of the interests behind the plan: many of those involved have connections with Frontline, the fast-track graduate social work training scheme that critics say is favoured by the DfE and has been funded by the Boston group. But the blueprint is sparking interest more broadly.
Ruth Allen, the chief executive of BASW, says: “We are not endorsing this particular model, because we have not been involved in its development, but we are supporting the principles around relationship-based practice and increased autonomy for social workers. The value of this is that it opens up a debate, which is really helpful.”
Sue White, professor of social work at Sheffield University, says the blueprint has clear echoes of the 1982 Barclay report on social work, which was never implemented.
“I have been arguing for ever that we need a much more simple system to support complex professional work. I am completely in support of the principles behind the model – that is, patch-based work where people are connected with families and with each other,” she says.
Taking decades but … finally getting there ???