Tower Hamlets story of small changes: Franceska & Tolulope

Franceska and Tolulope are social workers in a Tower Hamlets Family Support and Protection team that embarked on a Small Changes project. Here, they reflect on their experiences of small changes, and the impact the project has had on their team culture.

The main barrier that was stopping us from spending more time undertaking direct work with children and families was the outsized role that recording and administrative responsibilities played within our roles. Our internal administrative processes weren’t always enabling us to do our best work – our shared resource folder was largely inaccessible, and our referral process was unnecessarily unwieldy, and led to consistent duplication.

This barrier had a lot of implications for our roles, our wellbeing, our workload, and, ultimately, the children and families we worked with:

  • Social workers in our teams found ourselves investing a lot of energy into administrative, tick-box exercises that weren’t relevant or helpful to child protection.
  • We felt unable to meaningfully contribute to, or direct, Core Group Meetings because of unequal responsibilities, particularly around minute-taking; other professionals consistently deferred to the social worker, which can place an unsustainable and disproportionate burden on us. This also made it difficult for social workers to meaningfully contribute to those meetings since they’re too busy trying to minute-take to effectively join the conversation.
  • The direct work we were undertaking with children and families wasn’t always the most meaningful. For example, school visits to see a child can’t be recorded on our system as statutory visits, even though they’re often the most impactful visits a social worker can make, since children can be more forthcoming about their experiences when they’re outside of their home environment. This essentially means that we’re prioritising the data we record (no. of statutory visits) over the quality of the information we analyse. This leads to a feeling that we’re missing out on potentially crucial direct work with children.

These barriers caused many of our colleagues to feel stuck in a cycle of heavy administrative responsibilities, missed opportunities for good direct work, and burnout.

In order to introduce new ways of working, we supported across three strands of work. We helped convene a strategy and working group for encouraging other professionals to take on more responsibility in Core Group Meetings, which centered around developing a minute-taking template and guide. We tested these resources with a few volunteers from different agencies, to ensure they were accessible, helpful and fit for practice. These resources helped attendees build their confidence around knowing what to record from the Core Group Meetings, which encouraged them to take on the minute-taking role, and made them more accountable to the child’s outcomes overall. Furthermore, we supported refreshing our shared drive, which contains the forms and templates we need for our practice and administrative work, collating all the resources into one place, and encouraging colleagues to use email to share resources within teams. We also helped another working group to develop one universal referral form, which should streamline the process for referring families to in-house LA services.

The key enabler which made change possible was the enthusiastic and continuous buy-in from everyone involved; we were helped along by business support, senior management, the Principal Social Worker and the IT team. There’s a lot of work going on in the background in the wider service to help deliver small changes and build on them further – for example, colleagues across the local authority helped invite outside services to collaborate with us on the development of a new referral form. Team managers and senior managers have re-focussed their roles onto the duty of care they have for the social workers in their service, and how they can enable their best work, which has been great to see. We developed a culture where everyone could speak up and find agreement on what needed to change, and we lived up to the values we identified at the start of the project, of being creative, innovative and supportive with one-another around what’s achievable.

The main barriers that we’ve encountered relate to the limits of our role and remit; we need senior management and collaborators across the local authority to move things forward, and this operational support hasn’t always been forthcoming. For example, we wanted to encourage Business Support Officers (BSO) to support us with administrative tasks such as minute-taking during meetings. The BSOs felt they couldn’t support tasks like these without their Director’s sign-off, and they wanted to defer to the Principal Social Worker and Social Work Academy. Without all of these people in the room together coming to an agreement around a new way of working, there was little we could do to encourage the change. It sometimes feels like there’s a lack of institutional shared knowledge around responsibilities, and what is or isn’t permissible, which can result in stasis and paralysis. It’s also been tricky finding the time amid busy schedules to prioritise this small changes work – the changes we identified will help us to better balance out the time in our roles long-term but they require investment.

By following the Crescendo approach, we’ve gained a better understanding around our service and the system we work in; we’ve identified the gaps where there currently exists no remit for definitively pursuing a better way of working (encouraging school visits alongside statutory home visits, for example), and we’ve discovered that sometimes we need to approach change on a smaller, more incremental scale before we can contemplate system change. This awareness will really help with the development of a local blueprint, which will outline the system-wide changes we need to make to our service to improve outcomes for children and families.

There needs to be root-and-branch reform of the children’s social care sector on a national scale, but it’s helpful to reflect on the smaller changes we can make on an individual level that can make a big difference to the families and communities we work with. This project’s allowed us to think a bit more about what’s within our gift to change, rather than just discussing the systemic issues in social work which are beyond our money, time and resourcing to change (this can be very demotivating!) The experience of identifying and effecting small changes has also created a culture of helpfulness across our service; being able to talk openly and constructively about the barriers we’re facing has helped us to navigate our roles better. It’s easy to get caught up in a feeling of ‘this is how social work is and always will be’, or that administrative work will always be an outsized burden in our roles, but the Crescendo approach has helped us realise that it doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve found the whole experience to be very reflective and therapeutic, and overall good for our emotional health – we’re no longer feeling overwhelmed by thoughts of what needs to change; we’ve got an outlet for making them happen!

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