- Brighton & Hove City Council's relationship-based practice model sees children supported by the same small team of social workers throughout their case
- A feature of the model is "One Story", an assessment and recording approach social workers use to ensure children only tell their story once
- The model aims to reduce numbers of cases escalating to care proceedings by professionals getting to understand the needs of families earlier
Brighton & Hove City Council began redesigning its children's services in early 2014 in response to feedback from children, families and staff. Children were experiencing multiple transitions, as separate social worker teams dealt with new cases, child protection, children in care, or adoption. Each time the child moved on they had to repeat their story.
The department also found it difficult to recruit social workers, with 20 per cent coming from agencies as a result. Principal social worker Tom Stibbs says social workers complained of a lack of focus on children's needs, which was increasing the numbers entering the care system.
The department consulted all staff about how to redesign services through workshops and surveys, including business support and administration. Officials considered models at other authorities, such as the London Borough of Southwark. They chose a relationship-based practice model, which they honed to meet local needs. Brighton families experience high levels of mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence, which impact children.
The council was about to launch its new approach in May 2015 when Ofsted inspected the department. It judged services as "requires improvement", as a result of low scores in safeguarding. "That gave us confirmation the points we'd identified were what we needed to deal with," says assistant director for safeguarding and care Helen Gulvin.
Social workers began operating under the new model, dubbed the Team Around the Relationship, in October 2015. Management structures were completely reorganised with staff split into 16 teams called "pods". Each is staffed by one full-time pod manager and up to seven social workers, and has at least one social work trainee attached to it and a business support officer. Each works with a child from the first assessment through to the end of the case.
Each pod worker has a caseload of around 18. The pods deal with all issues and all levels of need, except one pod focusing on adolescents at high risk of coming into care or going into custody. In this pod social workers have a lower caseload of eight each.
The pod manager is accountable for decision making, supported by group supervision. When the council's Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub refers a family to a pod, the manager appoints a social worker to the case. Together they set a timescale for a first assessment, which must happen within 35 days. The manager and social worker share details with other pod members so that staff absences do not slow down proceedings. "There's consistency because social workers get to know each other's cases and cover each other," says Stibbs.
The new model also includes a redesigned approach to recording and assessing children's stories. Social workers have been trained to record once under the One Story model. The recording aims to be more focused and analytical, and encourages social workers to consider how to progress cases.
To implement the model, the council revised its workforce development programme. Social workers completed skills workshops to learn the new relationship-based approach. As they previously worked in teams focused on single areas, some needed to learn new skills to support children across an entire process, such as court work. Professionals moving into pod manager roles also completed systemic leadership training.
The new model has reduced the number of children in care. At the end of December 2016, the council had 428 under-18s compared to 445 in the same month of 2015 - a four per cent reduction. The number of children subject to child protection plans also fell over the same period from 410 to 373 - a nine per cent decrease.
However, the number of care proceedings has risen. Stibbs says this is in line with a national trend. In the long-term, Stibbs expects the model to reduce this number. "The reasons for that are the principles around continuity, social workers building relationships, and social workers being focused on affecting change and making a difference," he adds.
The number of looked-after children within the criminal justice system has also fallen from 27 in 2015 to nine in 2016.
The department has cut agency staff use to around 12 per cent. In particular, it replaced 10 agency manager level roles with employees. Some agency staff transferred to become permanent team members. The new management structures also resulted in the council raising frontline social worker numbers from 104 full-time posts to 112. However, Stibbs says recruitment and retention remains challenging.
The Local Government Association conducted a safeguarding peer review of the new model in September 2016. Its assessors observed no inadequate work. However, they found variable quality in the assessing, planning and recording of cases.
Stibbs says the model was not designed to reduce costs from the outset, and was delivered within the department's existing budget. But he expects savings to follow as the number of families with which the council works falls. Gulvin estimates every looked-after child costs between £35,000 and £40,000 a year.
Stibbs adds that the approach is scalable. "There is learning other local authorities could do based on our model," he says.