What a difference six months makes

19 July 2019

Six months ago this week, I walked into the What Works Centre’s office on my first day as Executive Director – excited about the work ahead, and daunted by the scale of the challenges in front of me. On the same day, we published my first blog, in which I stated our intention to “Start as we mean to go on”.

How have we gotten on? There are a lot of things that we’ve started that lived up to that motto. We’ve launched nine new research projects. The first of these, our projects placing social workers in schools and giving social workers access to devolved budgets, are beginning to produce interim results already. More projects – from our Schwartz rounds trial to our work on Happier, Healthier Professionals – will begin to report towards the end of the summer.

We’re also investing in longer term studies – like the Strengthening Families, Protecting Children which is taking a Stepped Wedge approach to evaluate the roll-out of three whole system approaches from North Yorkshire, Leeds and Hertfordshire.

We’ve backed our belief that the best innovation is going to come from practitioners themselves with the launch of our Practice In Need of Evidence programme. We are now working with eight partners to support their evidence journey.

While we’ve done this, I’m immensely proud of the passionate, brilliant team that has come together to work at the centre – social workers, policy wonks, qualitative and quantitative researchers, programme managers, and more besides. The team’s diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints is almost as large as their commitment to our work. I am particularly grateful to have had our four directors – Emily Morgan, Anna Bacchoo, Liz Castle and Louise Reid – by my side as we’ve begun this undertaking.

Together with the team, it’s been my privilege to travel around the country meeting system leaders and social workers in over a dozen local authorities so far. My affection for social work as a profession, already huge, has grown with each of these interactions, seeing how social workers are doing everything they can to support families under incredibly difficult circumstances. It might take a few years, but I’m determined to get around to see every local authority in the country.

Beyond our own borders, we’ve begun programmes of work collaborating with other What Works Centres – from the Education Endowment Foundation to the What Works Centre for Crime Reduction, to the Centre for Homelessness Impact and the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes. We’re helping draw together members of the What Works Network, and the evidence they produce, to focus more closely on young people in touch with children’s social work. The culmination of this work will be a major initiative that we’ll give more details on soon – bringing these organisations together into the same space to ease collaboration and cooperation.

So, I think our report card is looking pretty good. But we need to be honest. There are some things that we’ve not done quite so well, and areas where I wish I’d done things differently. Sometimes I’ve got the tone a bit wrong in my blogs, or in my conversations with people. I also know that we’ve sometimes put cart and horse in the wrong order – partly due to the pressure to get things done against a tight deadline. We’ve sometimes consulted less, or less widely, than we should have done (and I would have liked to have done) and been slow to pick up on some people’s views. I hope we’re getting better on this score – but there’s always room for improvement and we always welcome feedback.

We’ve also had some false starts – ideas that we thought would work, but on closer inspection we changed our minds. I hope, in the next six months, that we can continue to learn, continue to listen, continue to change our minds when it’s right to do so, and continue with the partnerships we’ve already begun – and start some more along the way.