kennedyCareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy looks at how the social work practices model might be improved:


The social work practices (SWP) model was an important part of the last Government's plans for driving up quality and staff satisfaction in children's social care services. The current evaluation looks at the experience of 5 authorities who piloted the scheme from 2009/10. There had originally been a sixth authority, but the results of an inspection forced them to concentrate their efforts on core services rather than innovative projects.

SWPs were intended to emulate some of the features of GP practices with independent groups of professionals contracting with - on this occasion - local authorities to deliver all or part of their children's social care services. The pilots were intended to see whether smaller social work-led organisations independent of local authorities could improve the morale and retention of social workers and bring decision making closer to front-line practice.

The evaluation paints a very mixed picture of what the pilots did and did not achieve:
• A key feature was the wide variety of approaches adopted in the pilots
• This included differences in their organisation, in their origins and in the numbers and profiles of looked after children they supported
• Numbers of children included in the services ranged from 80 to 727, and practices dealt with different age groups and levels of children's need
• Organisational arrangements included a private company with social work training experience, voluntary organisations, a social enterprise and an in-house, but separate, local authority social work practice
• However all of the practices continued to receive some support from their local authority in terms of out-of-hours services, premises and equipment etc
• Three of the 5 pilots are set to continue until at least 2013, when LA contracts are next due for review
• But 2 have been discontinued - one for funding reasons; the other, though, because of serious concerns about its performance
• The report suggests that there was some overall evidence of improvements in service to children and families, including examples of greater staff continuity and consistency, and more opportunity for direct work with children
• But, on the other hand, the report says that children in SWPs didn't seem to "find staff more responsive or accessible than their counterparts in the comparison sites".
• The report notes that workers in SWPs had smaller caseloads and (in smaller practices) enjoyed higher levels of team collaboration
• It also says that different models were seen to have different strengths
• And that local authority stakeholders' views on the success of the pilots varied
• Commissioning of the practices is described as having been an 'arduous' process, and no cost-savings were identified as a result of their operation
• The finding - during the pilot phase - that there were some improvements in staff morale, was seen to be at risk in any future model based on short term contracted services

Comments on any future development of SWPs include notes on:
• The central importance of a supportive and trusting relationship with the commissioning local authority
• The need to consult children about the introduction of the SWP model
• The particular benefits of small teams
• The need for continued focus on birth families and contact arrangements (to ensure necessary emotional support, rather than simply increase contact)

Taken together then, the findings of this report don't seem to justify any rush to a wider roll-out of the SWP model - but that does not mean that there won't be continued political and policy interest in its further development. Supporters might say, for example, that better results might have been obtained if the pilots had been truly independent and social work-led.

The report, though, is clear that, on current evidence, it's difficult to ascribe improvements identified, solely or directly to the model - and here, it's arguable that some of the features seen as positive, such as working in small teams, and having reduced caseloads could be re-created in other organisational arrangements - if there was the will… 


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