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“Social work is not rocket science; it’s far more difficult than that”

Steve Goodman, co-founder of Morning Lane Associates and the Reclaiming Social Work model, is speaking at our leadership seminar next month. We spoke to him ahead of the event to discuss his career in social work, the need for the Reclaiming Social Work model, and what we can expect to hear on 10 May.

What inspired you to embark on a career in social work?
Well, it was quite a long time ago when I made that decision. I come from a working class family from Luton and I studied psychology at university. I wanted to do something that could relate to the situation that my family lived in when I was growing up. I don’t think I made any conscious decisions, it just happened after I finished my psychology degree. In fact, my mum sent me an advert for trainee social workers in Luton and I thought, well, I’ll apply for that! I’m sure there’s nothing better I could have done than social work, so I was very lucky that I stumbled into the profession. I think many views about social work are based on no experience of it, so most people don’t really know what it’s about, but it’s a great place to be. A great career.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background in the profession?
I spent most of my career in Leicestershire as I did my social work course at the University of Leicester. Martin Herbert was the head of the social work course there, and he’s the reason I chose that university. He was a behaviourist and doing a lot of work around how to help parents manage difficult behaviour – that was my interest at the time. Then I stayed in Leicester for a very long time doing a variety of jobs. At the time, Leicestershire was a big local authority so I could take on many different roles. Then in 2001, Hackney Council put out an advert saying: ‘Do you want to work for the worst local authority in the country?’, and I thought why not? So I went to Hackney, first of all as community care director running adult services and then, in 2004, I moved over to children’s social care. I then took responsibility for youth and youth offending services too. Since 2010, I’ve been running Morning Lane Associates, where I’ve worked with a lot of really good colleagues and been involved in a variety of different projects, from helping Frontline get off the ground to supporting local authorities deliver social care. We have developed some excellent training courses too.

Can you tell us about the Reclaiming Social Work (RSW) approach and how it differs from more conventional models of social work?
The most important thing about RSW is that it has a very strong value base, and is a system that is very clear about what you’re actually attempting to do, which is essentially help children stay with their families. We halved the number of children in care over a four-year period in Hackney. I feel very pleased about just how many children we helped stay safely with their families. What RSW also does is give social workers a chance of succeeding. We kept the best social workers doing social work. By replacing teams with unit consultant social workers, our best social workers were still able to do hands on social work. The approach is also about having a clear understanding of how difficult the job of a social worker is, and giving social workers the space and tools to do that job. It’s about having a skills development programme that enabled them to think about the tools they needed to do the best job they could; and giving them time to think together as a unit.

Why was there a need for the RSW model?
I think what happened in the 1990s and the early part of this century is that, although there were good intentions from lots of different agencies, they were also making the problem worse. Far more bureaucracy and processes were brought into practice, which made the job of a social worker much more difficult – in particular they had much less time to form relationships with families. Social workers were feeling that it was harder and harder for them to do their jobs and that there was also a lack of recognition that social work is a very difficult job. As John Fluke once said, “social work is not rocket science; it’s far more difficult than that.” We were trying to redress this situation, while working within the confines of the system. It wasn’t just us in Hackney. I think there are many places around the country who, over the last 10-15 years, have been trying to address the problems that were created.

Where did you take your inspiration for the model?
I took my inspiration from three places. Firstly, the MBA I did at Leicester University gave me a lot of ideas about organisational context, systems and structures, which were used to develop the model. I also took inspiration from some of the models that were being used in Leicestershire, such as the Child Care Strategy, which had an impact on reducing the number of children in public care. However, the main inspiration were social workers themselves because they were saying it’s impossible to do a good job right now, but here’s how we could improve things. When designing the model, we tried to take into account everything they were saying, and tried to build into the new system things that would help them, rather than hinder them.

Do you see any trends or themes across the social work profession?
Some of the changes that RSW implemented 10 years ago are now much more mainstream. For example, the use of systemic approaches in social work is much more common practice. The understanding that the social work task is difficult is also a lot greater now and I think there is a better understanding that we need to remove bureaucratic processes from social work.

What can we expect to hear at the leadership seminar on 10 May?
I’ll be discussing what leadership is and what it isn’t, as well as how leadership should be dispersed across organisations. I will discuss why social workers need to have the authority to act when required. Finally, I will set out the things that I think leaders should be doing – and some of the things they should stop doing.