When Hackney Council dramatically improved its child and family services through a radical revamp of social work management, it was no surprise that other local authorities soon came calling, eager to reproduce the success of the London borough’s “Reclaiming Social Work” model.

What is more surprising is that the first council to pick up the RSW baton has been Cambridgeshire.

At first sight the differences between Hackney and Cambridgeshire are stark.

Where Hackney is small, urban and densely packed, Cambridgeshire is a sprawling, rural county council. Prior to RSW, Hackney’s children’s services were in dire straits, bedevilled by high staff sickness rates and dependent on agency staff. In contrast, Cambridgeshire’s services are performing well with no problems in staff retention or absenteeism.

Nevertheless, by 2010 there were a few cracks appearing in Cambridgeshire’s system and director of children’s social care Niki Clemo was keen to act before any serious problems emerged.

“Our performance was adequate at the time, but certainly not good enough,” she says. “We were in the fortunate position of having a fully staffed team, but a very significant proportion were newly qualified. Around 68 per cent had less than two years’ experience. So, we were seeing a variability of practice. We'd see examples of very good and effective work, but on other occasions we'd see poor practice - things like delay in care planning for children awaiting adoption.”

Clemo was also concerned at the suffocating effects of bureaucracy.

“We were slaves to the computer and it was driving our practice,” she says. “We worked out that we were spending 80 per cent of our time behind a computer and only 20 per cent out with families.”

Looking for ways to improve, Clemo sent a group of managers to investigate the Hackney model. They came back “absolutely enthused by Reclaiming Social Work”.

“While the circumstances were different, the model was clearly applicable whether you were a two-tier rural country or a fairly small borough. The social work task is still the same wherever you are delivering that service.”

As a result, and following an extensive consultation period, Cambridgeshire has begun to reshape its children and family services in a way that “mirrors the RSW model almost in its entirety”.

This means dismantling the traditional manager-led social work teams and replacing them with “units” incorporating a practising consultant social worker, two other children’s service social workers, a clinician and a unit coordinator responsible for running the unit’s business and administrative tasks. Cases are shared within the unit rather than allocated to individual social workers. There are now 12 units up and running with a further 32 planned by the end of the year.

“We are doing it over a gradual period of time as it’s a very different way of working and you’ve got to manage that transition carefully,” says Clemo.

One of Cambridgeshire’s first consultant social workers is Maggie John. She describes the unit model as “enabling us to be social workers in the way that all of us want to be”.

“It’s not so much the personnel that makes the difference; it’s what we do,” she says.

“The dramatic difference is that we meet every week to discus every child. That generates a focus on the casework that we didn’t have before. There’s a sense that we are all in it together; we are not isolated with our caseloads. We allocate a lot of time to our cases and that generates a quality of thinking with checks and balances built in. We challenge each other and we review what we are doing, so we don’t get stuck with a particular interpretation of what a family’s difficulties might be. It’s a much more creative way of working.”

Another key difference in approach is the use of systemic family therapy. The clinician in John’s unit is a qualified family therapist and each of the social workers is receiving extensive training in the discipline.

“Systemic family therapy is an ideal core model to be bringing in to social work,” says John. “Some of us have always thought theoretically or therapeutically about the way we work with families but we would do it in a fragmented way. This brings us together with a common language and approach.”

Having immediate access to a specialist family therapist also means interventions can now be based on family systems theory.

“We used to get so frustrated that we couldn’t make referrals to CAMH for family therapy. Now we can decide at our Wednesday morning meeting and just do it. Some of the barriers to creative and appropriate interventions are gone and we can just get on with it.”

“For example, we are working with a family where we are running family therapy sessions and the social workers provide what’s called the reflecting team,” says John.

Other techniques such as “hypothesising” are being used to investigate the dynamics of struggling families.

“The idea of hypothesising is that you generate a lot of possible thoughts about what might be happening. You can hypothesise crazy thoughts as well as very sound careful thoughts and you put them all into the pot. This means you don’t get stuck with a particular interpretation of what’s going on. All these different ideas begin to coalesce and consolidate into the ones that resonate most. The unit model lends itself to this very well.”

“It also allows us to invite the family to do the same thing; to hypothesise and ask circular questions - what might help, what might hinder and how we can move things forward?

John stresses that while protecting children from risk remains a priority, the unit system allows a much more positive approach to supporting families.

“We are not so hidebound by the previous protocols and paperwork-driven approach so we can be very creative in what we do. We can say what does this family really need and how can we do that. And we’ve got five of us to come up with ideas.”

When RSW was implemented in Hackney, it resulted in a significant reduction in the number of children taken into care, with a subsequent saving in costs. While a similar effect in Cambridgeshire would be welcome, Niki Clemo stresses that this is not the primary motivation for bringing in the policy. Nor will it mean any delay in removing children from harm’s way.

“This isn’t about doing it cheaper and it’s not about us raising our thresholds,” she says. “It is about the early identification of risk and then being able to do something about it - intervening and being able to provide the right support to the family at the right time. It’s about making sure that those children that are at risk of significant harm are removed quickly with all the evidence of why you need to remove them.”

Indeed, convincing the politicians within the council of the realities of risk management has been a key factor in being able to introduce the new regime.

“I’m very fortunate to have both officer and political support in what we are trying to do here,” says Clemo. “It’s acknowledged in Cambridgeshire that children’s social care cannot prevent every tragedy and that these awful things do happen. But they recognise that while we can’t eliminate that risk, we can minimise it.”

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