- Social work students to senior managers are trained in the approach, supporting people to find solutions to issues they face
- Leeds is developing Restorative Early Support Teams and a Restorative Adolescent Service
Since its 2009 Ofsted "inadequate" rating, Leeds children's services has been developing family group conferencing, empowering families to find ways of staying together safely as part of a drive to cut the number of children in care.
Deputy children's services director Saleem Tariq says this had to be accompanied by culture change. "When you're sharing some of the power with families, it needs a shift in the way you operate," he says. "So we wanted to change the nature of our social work."
Tariq says there is a "direct correlation" between the department's organisational culture and its social work practice. So its first step was creating a restorative working culture. "We wanted to ensure it had an impact on the way families received social work, trying to ensure a move away from a punitive or permissive style: working with them, rather than doing things to and for them," he says. "A punitive approach can create fear for families, often based around completing processes. But with restorative social work, you're building relationships and trust to engender change."
The council spread these principles through training 6,500 social workers and other children's professionals between April 2015 and March 2016. New recruits are introduced to restorative practice and family group conferencing in an induction training session.
Restorative practice is also embedded in the social work curriculum at the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University, through a teaching partnership with both universities.
The principle underpinning this practice is the "social discipline window", based on the belief that people make positive change when those in authority do things in partnership with them.
"If a family is struggling, traditional social work may just do things for them, such as arranging for the house to be cleaned, or taking a child to school if attendance is a problem," explains training and development manager Julie Devonald. "That doesn't help, because we're not giving them tools to become self-sufficient. If you do things to them, telling them what to do, they're not able to work things out next time. So we work jointly with families to find support and resources within their own networks, and facilitate family decision making."
Social workers are equipped with tools for ‘restorative language', including a sequence of three phrases to restore relationships during conflict, such as: ‘When you shout at me, I feel very anxious; what I need is a calm conversation'. A conflict resolution toolkit provides them with a series of questions to ask those involved, such as: ‘who's been affected?' and ‘what needs to happen next?' Devonald explains: "It gives people a structure to use, which makes them feel more comfortable."
Around 18 senior social workers and managers have been trained in restorative facilitation, which can be used as a problem-solving alternative to a grievance hearing or disciplinary. And "action learning sets" - six half-day training sessions focusing on themes including connections and relationships, communication, conflict and challenging people - are being spread across all teams.
Child protection social worker Vicky says restorative practice comes into play from the "first time you speak to a family on the phone or arrive on their doorstep". "Any planning we do, we'll do with families, such as making safety plans, ensuring they're coming up with ideas to make their children safe," she says. "They know what's going to work best for them. If you work honestly and transparently, being clear about what you're worried about, it gives them the opportunity to address concerns."
Devonald says restorative practice can be challenging for social workers used to a process-driven way of working. "The danger is that it's seen as another initiative," she says. "So you have to embed it and be consistent."
Leeds has reduced the number of children in care by 15.5 per cent over the past six years. In the authority's 2015 "good" Ofsted report, inspectors highlighted the "transformational impact" of restorative practice; "successfully challenging traditional social work approaches and supporting families' own capacity to respond to identified concerns themselves".
The reduction in the proportion of newly qualified social workers in Leeds suggests the approach has improved staff retention. In 2011, they made up 42 per cent of the authority's social workers. Now 87 per cent have more than one year post-qualifying experience and 60 per cent have more than four years. Tariq reports the proportion of agency staff reducing "very significantly" since 2011.
Leeds has been awarded £9.6m of government Partners in Practice funding to further develop restorative practice. It is establishing Restorative Early Support Teams of social workers and family support workers in eight of the city's 25 localities, to support children on the cusp of needing social care.
And a Restorative Adolescent Service will be delivered through forums of specialists including psychologists and speech and language therapists, helping social workers and other frontline staff interpret a young person's behaviour, find the best response and build their expertise. The funding will also enable Leeds to share its learning through a Centre of Excellence - a hub for learning events, training and guidance.