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Implementing Signs of Safety: high expectations, high support and high challenge

Louise Shorthouse described the Social Work Academy developed by Coventry City Council to support its newly qualified social workers working with children and families.

30/10/22

Implementing Signs of Safety: high expectations, high support and high challenge

The academy is based on Signs of Safety, a strengths and safety-based approach to child protection work, developed in Australia and used by Coventry since 2015.

“We have high expectations of our newly qualified workers, but do that within a really supportive environment that provides opportunities to experience lots of learning and development, and have that kind of challenge that's needed as well. We want every social worker in Coventry to be willing and able to ask questions and ask for help, be professional and model best practice.”

“The programme begins with a three-week family-free induction… in the first three months, the newly qualified social workers will spend one day a week in a shadowing environment. So they will go out to different teams and experience what the workers are experiencing.’ A little later, the social workers are each allocated a host team.

“Our newly-qualified workers spend three days a week within the academy. And then two days a week, they go out to the host team, which is the area of service that they will be based in once they come out of their ASYE (assisted year in employment). So they will have that balance of practice against their Learning and Development.

“The way that the model works within the academy means that there are generally 12 newly qualified workers starting at once. Within that they have two senior practitioners, they have an experienced social worker and a team manager. They've got that kind of level of accountability there above to be able to seek support. They go out on visits with them, they do observations with them, and there's a constant feedback cycle. So there's always somebody there to provide you with feedback. And at the six-month point, the newly qualified social workers move into their host team permanently. That's where the support starts from the professional practice educators.

“I've got three colleagues and we go out to meet with the newly-qualified workers once they're in their host teams, and actually do kind of reflective supervision with them. As our AYSEs get into the host teams, and they're starting to take more cases, they're starting to build on to that level of a qualified social worker.

“We're able to give them an hour and a half a month alongside their case supervision that they would have from their manager anyway, to really start to unpick some of the things that they're working with. And we also support them with the development of their portfolios. So we can help write things like critical reflections and reflective stuff on your direct observations, that sort of thing. We have a curriculum that supports entry into practice.

During the last three months of the year, the ASYE social workers are part of the host team for the next cohort.

George Cooke, who joined the scheme on qualifying, said that at Coventry, ‘the Academy model gives you the chance to learn about the way Signs of Safety enables us to work with families. It helps them to realise what's working well in their lives, what we're worried about, and then you contribute to it as well. They are active participants in the model, and get to say what they think is working. Then the most important one is about what needs to happen.

He continued, “Probably the hardest thing I've done since I've qualified is that you're trying to develop what you are as a practitioner, trying to work with families, but at the same time, you're having to do these mounds of paperwork, portfolios, legal -- all these things together. And it's a nightmare. But thankfully, I didn't think it was a nightmare -- maybe not true for Louise, because it's a lot of work. But it is something you do need to do. And I would say the academy gives you the opportunity, because you've got reduced caseloads, to be able to go to get your ASYE done -- and you get colleagues to bounce off.”

Louise Shorthouse added that before the introduction of the ASYE scheme, “social workers would qualify from university and off you’d go out to a social work team. It was a bit of a sink or swim approach by some local authorities.”

Since its foundation in 2018, 168 newly-qualified social workers had gone through Coventry's academy with a retention rate of 80 per cent.

“If you're a newly qualified social worker, wherever you're looking, have a look at what the AYSE offer is, because it's important to lay the foundations during those first 12 months in practice and get things right for yourself as a practitioner, and the children and families that you work with. So take that opportunity to explore what local authorities are offering to you and what support can be provided to get you through those first 12 months in practice.”

Three years in, George Cooke is an advanced practitioner. “Now that's good development,” he said.

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