Social care toolmaker: Michael Sanders of What Works for Children's Social Care

Derren Hayes talks to Michael Sanders, executive director of What Works for Children's Social Care.

It has been a summer of highs and lows for Michael Sanders, executive director of What Works for Children's Social Care - the what works centre formed last year to improve the use of evidence-based practice in children's social care. In July, the organisation - backed with £20m of government funding - was widely criticised for funding "trivial" research into whether giving social workers free "quality" tea and coffee would improve morale. Then, in August, it announced encouraging early findings from its first major study which assessed the benefits of placing social workers in schools. For Sanders, a former civil servant and public policy researcher, it has been an eventful few months after taking charge in January.

Did the negative reaction to the tea and coffee study surprise you?

I was a little surprised, but maybe I shouldn't have been. It's natural to take a step back [after the response] and I did ask myself if I'd made a mistake. We made a couple of changes to the study as a result of some of the feedback we received - we extended the duration and reassessed some of the outcome measures - but I'm comfortable with the process we followed.

This was one of the studies put forward by our "pioneer group" of 27 councils and made it through [the selection process].

I take issue with the criticism that it is trivial. Staff in private companies and Number 10 get free tea and coffee. Social workers are valuable and deserve the same perks at work as other people. It costs just £5,000 per authority over the course of the trial and researchers are giving their time for free.

People on Twitter spoke positively about it and most of the emails I received were positive. We also had more local authorities wanting to take part after seeing the story and, as a result, we've doubled the number of councils trialling it to four, so not everyone thought it a terrible idea. Maybe it will work, maybe not.

In what other areas of children's social work do we need to improve the evidence base?

It may be a little controversial, but I think social work decision making. We have launched a project where we aim to recruit 600 social workers to test how we can best support them to make good decisions. Social workers are making dozens of decisions each week about what happens to children, young people and families. They have to take a lot of information in and predict what will happen in the future. When they issue a child protection plan, what they are doing is forecasting what is likely to happen. Why can't we have some of the ideas from business and political systems to see if they can be applied to social work?

How would this translate to everyday practice?

For example, what does the research say is the most effective way of building relationships with a child who regularly goes missing from home or a mother who has had children taken into care at a young age? People need the best evidence available to make a decision - it does not mean they have to slavishly follow what the research says. Social workers are experts and we need to give them the best possible tools.

Also it means that when the Department for Education goes to the Treasury and asks for more money, we want to give them the evidence to prove something works. For example, if the DfE asks for an extra £100m to roll out family group conferencing or the Pause programme across England, the Treasury will ask ‘what will be the outcomes if we give you the money?' We want to be able to answer that kind of question - if you spend money on this, it should result in a particular outcome.

In August, the organisation published findings from two major studies on social workers in schools and devolving spending decision to frontline practitioners. What other plans do you have?

Over the next few years, we want to make sure we look at what directors of children's services (DCS) think is important. Naturally, they are sceptical of something that says we can solve all your problems whizz bang wallop. We're a tool, an adjustable spanner - we're working our way through and showing what we're here for.

We're now working with more than 80 local authorities on active research projects and I'd like that to be north of 100 by next January. People are coming forward to work with us.

I'd like to give a special mention to Steven Walker, DCS in Leeds. He's a good person for us to work with because he's a sceptic. He's working with us on a few different projects and he challenges us. We're learning and I hope they are too - our research will evolve as they will.

You previously worked at the DfE on the children's social care innovation programme. Is this where you obtained your interest in children's social work?

I've been working in research with vulnerable people for the past seven years, initially on educational attainment and children who had difficulties in school.

I've always been aware of the role of social workers as my wife is a local authority child protection social worker. So much of social work is about relationships between the child and practitioner. It's an incredibly difficult and important job, and I don't think there's enough researchers doing work on that at the moment.

When I talk to social workers, there's a feeling they don't have the same kind of support in funded research as doctors and teachers do. It is about finding what kinds of approaches there are and what helps the most - we can do research on that.

Michael Sanders CV

  • January 2019 to present - Executive director, What Works for Children's Social Care
  • May 2018 to present - Reader in public policy, King's College London
  • September 2015 to present - Associate fellow, Oxford University Blavatnik School
  • September 2015 to January 2019 - Visiting fellow, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
  • January 2017 to December 2018 - Chief scientist, BI Ventures
  • February 2014 to December 2018 - Chief scientist, Behavioural Insights Team

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