Effective relationship and strength based social work models are a key feature of all local authorities that Ofsted has judged “Outstanding” in recent years and is becoming more common in London. But it isn’t a panacea – there is variation in how relationship and strength based social work models are applied. Some lead to impressive outcomes for families, whereas others get poor results. As with all things, how it is applied makes all the difference.
Effective relationship and strength based social work essentially strives to facilitate change for children by building authoritative, helpful, enduring and trusting relationships where workers seek to co-produce plans with children and parents. The intention is to do “with” families, rather than doing “to”.
Yvette Cooper, National Director of Social Care, Ofsted, in a webinar in 2019, wouldn’t endorse a particular model, but she did give some key ingredients which inspectors have noted around the country which lead to an effective relationship model.
Applying a whole system approach to relationship and strength based models.
Managers need to implement the model systematically, across the whole system rather than as an add on. This means that the values behind the model need to align with the whole culture of the organisation. They need to align with the social care systems that we put families through. So the way that senior managers create and set the management culture needs to model how we want social workers to work with families. It needs, for example, to be empathetic, supportive, able to listen and trustworthy, but also appropriately challenging and set high expectations.
Quality assurance systems need to reflect the model, so that they measure values and outcomes rather than mechanistic compliance with processes.
All levels of the organisation need to understand why they are using the model, have the skills to apply it and must believe in it. Haphazard roll out of training and tokenistic measures will not change outcomes.
An environment that promotes good social work practice
The model won’t work unless workers have manageable caseloads, spans of management that enable middle managers to oversee and support front line workers to manage risk well. Social workers need to receive good quality reflective supervision. Handovers between teams need to be handled well and planning and assessments need clarity and good communication so that transition points sustain and build on relationships already established.
Co-production with families
At the heart of relationship based work is the notion of co-production, of sharing power, of dialogue with young people and parents. In the best local authorities, parents and young people’s voices are at the centre of the work. But the best authorities also co-produce service structures and processes with families, so that they are helpful to the people receiving them. This is fundamental to changing the relationship from doing to to doing with.
Confident Risk Management
The best relationship based practice models support workers and young people to be confident in taking risks. Relationship based models should give workers a better understanding of the risks and strengths in families. They help build on the strengths in families, and help workers to be more confident about taking risks where this is appropriate. For example, where the best place is for a child to remain at home, managers and workers should be confident about making that decision with the right support in place. Relationship based social work should promote good judgement and reflection in supervision that helps to build confidence around risk.
Risk averse and mechanistic application of process is often the opposite of good relationship based working.
One of the core signs of effective relationship based work is purposeful direct work that makes a difference to children. This needs to be prioritised in the service, and workers need to be skilled and trained to deliver this. Workers need to be confident in motivational interviewing with older children and know the ages and stages for younger children.
Local authorities need to implement relationship based models hand in hand with agency partners through the Safeguarding Partnerships. Partner agencies need to fully understand the model, and offer their services in the same approach.
Here is the Scie webinar on relationship based practice.
Using relationship based practice in cases of conflict.