Seven features of practice

Projects in the first phase of the Children's Social Care Innovation Programme have been evaluated to identify practice that has the most impact for children, with seven clear features emerging.

A document launched by chief children's social worker Isabelle Trowler at a national learning conference held in London on 27 February summarises seven features of practice to emerge from some of the most effective projects funded through the Children's Social Care Innovation Programme.

The summary document provides an overview of what the seven features of practice look like on the ground, alongside the challenges and successes of implementation. It also outlines the difference that these features of practice can make to the lives of children and families, and the seven main outcomes achieved by projects that have demonstrated them (see box).

Using independent evaluation reports for the first round of projects, thematic reports and the final overall evaluation report written by the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford, the Department for Education has drawn together a number of particularly important findings that form the basis for the seven key features. It draws upon findings from projects looking to redesign whole children's social care practice systems, rather than work focussed on a specific group of children or issue.

While the DfE found huge diversity in the context and approaches of different projects, it said what was most striking was how projects that showed the most promising early outcomes shared many characteristics. Many of the features of practice can be seen working together in the most successful projects, and many of the most successful innovations demonstrated all seven of the features coming together as part of a comprehensive change programme.

This article is an abridged version of the summary document.

Feature 1 - Using a clear, strengths-based practice framework

Having a clear framework of practice means having a widely owned and well-defined set of values and theoretical principles that underpin all work with children and families. These must be understood, shared and used across the whole organisation, including by partners, and they must flow from and be championed and embedded by leaders.

A strengths-based approach is one that focuses on identifying families' strengths as well as their difficulties, and supports the family to understand for themselves how they can use their strengths to help overcome their difficulties.

What difference does it make?

Creates a shared understanding of what good practice looks like, alongside clear expectations - Practitioners know what is expected of them and families get a more consistent experience, as every social worker is working in a similar way.

  • Gives all practitioners a shared language - When all practitioners and partners are working with the same practice approach, they can easily discuss cases.
  • Provides a vehicle for developing direct work skills - Through the process of developing staff in a new practice approach.
  • Children and families are empowered - Rather just being told what they must do, children and families are supported to come up with their own solutions, which gives them a deeper sense of ownership of what needs to change.

Feature 2 - Systemic approaches

Systemic approaches focus on the way relationships shape the particular difficulties or challenges that face a family or other caring system. These relationships are considered at the level of the family system and of the wider social system which exerts an influence over how families operate.

The generation of multiple ideas about how family relationships might be working to keep problems going is encouraged, and systemic interventions focus on which of these ideas seems to best fit for the family system in terms of supporting relationships to be more helpful, and reduce the difficulties that a family faces. Systemic approaches are used alongside strengths-based approaches as the two complement one another.

What difference does it make?

  • Active change agents - Social workers seek to effect change, not just assess and report.
  • Children and families are empowered - They are supported to take ownership of their own solutions.
  • Creates sustainable change - Because families help create and own the change.
  • Families feel listened to - The approach encourages a deep and inquisitive analysis of what is happening for the family.

Feature 3 - Enabling staff to do skilled direct work

Providing the right training, coaching and supervision enables social workers to deliver higher quality direct work with children and families. Increasing support from non-social work staff, volunteers and/or administrative staff significantly increases the amount of social worker time available for direct work with families.

What difference does it make?

  • Better support for families - Several of the evaluations reported positive change in social work practice, and many cited evidence of better experiences for families.
  • More social work time spent on direct work - Work that doesn't need a social worker is done by others. For example, in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, the use of personal assistants led to a rise in social worker time with families from 34 to 58 per cent.

Feature 4 - Multi-disciplinary skills working together

Having different professional disciplines with a range of skills and knowledge working consistently together as a team to support the family enables better decision making and better responses to families' needs. Innovation programme projects achieved this in a number of different ways, for example by employing systemic family therapists to work as part of social work teams, or by bringing adult specialists together with children's specialists in a single team. Where professionals form a single team, the risk of families being passed between services is reduced.

What difference does it make?

  • Greater coherence for families - Multi-disciplinary teams simplify contact with families. Professionals in a single team can share information more easily, so families don't get multiple contacts nor have to repeat themselves.
  • Better, shared decision-making - When a multi-disciplinary group make decisions collectively they bring a range of perspectives, challenge each other's thinking and ultimately make better informed decisions.
  • Easier access to specialist help - Where teams include specialists, for example from adult services or domestic violence workers, the needs of the whole family can be better met within the team without "hand-offs" and outside referrals.

Feature 5 - Group discussion

Teams discussing and making decisions on cases collectively, within the context of a clear, shared approach to practice, enables them to jointly problem solve and test each other's analysis. Crucial elements of group case discussion include the involvement of multi-disciplinary expertise and access to highly skilled senior/consultant social workers.

What difference does it make?

  • Supports the development of good practice - Through role modelling, coaching, and quality professional discourse.
  • A range of professional expertise - A range of professional disciplines are involved, able to challenge each other and bring different perspectives.
  • Better, quicker decision-making - Knowledge is easily shared and case leads are supported to make decisions.

Feature 6 - High intensity and consistency of practitioner

Successful projects often focused on ensuring children and families had access to a consistent single practitioner within the team who was their main point of contact, with this person providing intensive support over time. This practitioner's aim would be to create a strong relationship with the young person/family, and act as a bridge to other members of the team, to aid engagement.

What difference does it make?

  • Prevents confusing multiple approaches to families - By ensuring planning and action is joined up and routed through one person.
  • Helps build strong relationships - The young person and family have someone consistent who they feel is invested in them.
  • Helps overcome mistrust and increase engagement - The main contact can act as a bridge to support the family to engage in more specialist interventions as necessary.

Feature 7 - Whole-family focus

While practitioners always focus on the needs of the child, it is by working with the whole family that children's outcomes can be improved. This includes working with parents who may not live together and who have complex relationships.

What difference does it make?

  • Prevents escalation and tacklesroot causes of a family's problems - The needs (for example, domestic violence, substance misuse, mental ill health) of parents are often at the root of risks to children, so effective strategies to address these needs are critical to better outcomes.
  • Creates long term, sustainable solutions - The focus is on addressing root causes and improving outcomes for the family as a whole.
  • Reduces family stress - Providing advice, advocacy and social support can tackle stress linked to debt, housing and family conflict.



While the time innovation programme projects have been running is relatively short, there are already some clear indications of positive impact emerging from successful round one projects. These include:

  1. Greater stability - Six projects achieved improved placement stability, including the Mockingbird Family Model fostering project which saw a four per cent rate of unplanned placement change, compared with eight per cent nationally.
  2. Reduced risk - Half of projects reported reductions of children on child protection plans, including the Signs of Safety authorities which saw a 22 per cent decrease in the rate of children becoming subject to a plan.
  3. Increased wellbeing and resilience - Out of 26 projects, 14 reported improvements in children's physical or mental health and seven improved resilience mainly among parents.
  4. Reduction in care - 14 of the 23 projects that aimed to reduce the number of children in care achieved this. In the five Reclaiming Social Work authorities, 79 per cent of those children identified as at highest risk of needing care stayed with their families.
  5. Increased staff wellbeing - Two authorities involved in Focus on Practice saw sickness absence drop 40 per cent, while in Hampshire, which provided highly skilled personal assistants to support social workers, sickness rates reduced by 83 per cent.
  6. Reduced turnover and agency rates - In Hertfordshire, there was a reduction in the number of allocated social workers for each family, suggesting fewer changes of worker.
  7. Value for money - More than 80 per cent of projects reporting on value for money found improvements. For example, North Yorkshire's No Wrong Door estimates over £1m savings or costs avoided per year for the authority and other local agencies.

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