Next steps for the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care

20 March 2018

Today is World Social Work Day – an event that encourages the celebration and promotion of the profession’s contributions to individuals, families, communities and wider society. It is a great day for me to give an update on the work our consortium – led by Nesta and involving the Alliance for Useful Evidence, FutureGov, the Social Care Institute for Excellence and Traversum – has been doing to develop the proposed What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, and to highlight the next steps we’ll be taking to help the centre fulfill its stated goal: improving outcomes for children, young people, and their families by supporting the translation of evidence into better practice.

When we launched the development programme for the centre last autumn, we made a commitment to start in listening mode. We feel we’ve made good on that commitment. For the last few months, we’ve undertaken an extensive set of engagement activities – to hear from stakeholders about what they would like from the WWC, to understand social work professionals’ needs for and use of evidence, in context, and to ensure as well that we learn from the experience of previous research and evidence initiatives in and around the sector.

We’ve met sector stakeholders (including LGA, ADCS, Ofsted, BASW, the Principal Social Workers Network and the Children’s Improvement Board), made contact with senior officials at 16 local authorities and 13 national charities, and run a series of four open-to-all events around the country that attracted over 250 practitioners. We’ve also made sure we connect with national policy initiatives – for example, by presenting to the Partners in Practice group of local authorities and running a workshop at the Innovation Programme’s National Learning Conference. And, throughout this work, we’ve been maintaining close liaison with the Cardiff University-led consortium charged with fulfilling the WWC Research Partner role, ensuring that research and development activities for the new centre march in step.

From what we’ve heard, we’ve identified two big challenges for the new centre:

  1. Creating a better evidence base. There’s good evidence that can be collated, synthesised and shared; and there are topics on which it doesn’t currently exist and on which works-style methods of evaluation and experimentation might helpfully be deployed to generate new robust evidence.

  2. Ensuring WWC activity leads to change, not just outputs. If we are to do more than merely interpret the world and actually make a real difference to practice, we will need to devise new approaches that ensure good evidence is both taken up and acted upon. In doing so, we can learn from the practice of great social workers who understand the limitations of a transactional model (in which the expert attempts to disseminate the required change by telling the client what to do – in effect, doing change to clients) and, instead, adopt a relational model in which the emphasis is on working with clients to build capability, motivation and opportunity for change.

In responding to these challenges, we need to:
Set priorities for the centre’s research activities. This is a sector where there’s a lot the WWC could look at; but the Cardiff and Nesta consortium contracts only run through to the Spring of 2020, so there’s a need to set priorities that allow the new centre to add value over the next two years. The initial priorities will include what works in reducing the need for children to enter care and into what works in the supervision of frontline social workers. These are big and important questions for the sector, and they focus the WWC on significant slices of the overall budget for children’s services. The Research Partner consortium will be leading on these projects: further details can be found on
the Cardiff University CASCADE page.

Make research evidence more useful to the sector. From our early engagement work – in particular, the practice-insights study we undertook with a group of local authorities – we have some understanding of the barriers to the adoption of good evidence, and some ideas as to how these barriers might be overcome. We now plan to work with a small number of ‘pioneer’ sites over the summer to develop and test approaches to ensuring that local authorities are well positioned to make the best use of evidence that we know to be good – to become research-ready organisations. We will use prototyping methods to quickly test, learn and adapt promising ideas for building capability, motivation and opportunity to act on good evidence – working with authorities to help them become research-ready organisations. We will post further updates on these plans – and on how you can get involved – over the coming period.

Start recruiting the leadership for the new centre. We are excited by today’s announcement from the Minster that the WWC will be establishing a Founding Board and recruiting to the role of Founding Chair. We will post further updates on the process for recruitment to this role in the very near future.

These three developments – around research priorities, working with pioneer sites, and non-executive recruitment – will allow us to continue our progress towards the creation of a centre that will be built to last. In taking forward these developments, we mean to continue as we have started – in listening mode. So, as before: if you have any observations or insights that you feel could help us to make a success of this important venture, we would love to hear from you. And if you haven’t already done so, please join our contact list (by signing up here) so that we can continue the conversation as we embark on the next phase in the WWC’s journey.