Signs of Safety: Findings from the second evaluation by King’s College London

Dr Mary Baginsky

Dr Mary Baginsky is Senior Research Fellow at the NIHR Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce. (1,109 words)

The report on the second round of Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme funding for the 10 MTM (Munroe, Turnell and Murphy) Signs of Safety (SofS) pilots has just been published. The strengths-based approach to child protection and safety is widely used around the world, as well as in two-thirds of local authorities in England (Baginsky et al., 2020). The term ‘Signs of Safety’ refers to a model of practice that consists of:

  • principles that privilege relationships with children and their families
  • disciplines in relation to assessments, behaviours and language
  • tools for assessment and planning, as well as for use with children and families.[1]

It is not known to what extent a ‘pure model’ of SofS is in place in English local authorities. The survey that identified its use also showed the variations – and pick and mix approaches – that  were in place.

Back in 2014 when the 10 MTM pilots were recruited the idea was that they worked to the model above which was developed into a whole system design that MTM considered essential to support, monitor and build high-quality SofS practice based on a supportive organisational culture and the commitment of those in senior leadership positions. The first evaluation found that: Continue reading

Social Austerity – Child Protection and Human Rights

Dr Mary Baginsky

Dr Mary Baginsky

Senior Research Fellow at HSCWRU, Dr Mary Baginsky, reports from a conference that took place in Komotini, Greece,1-3 November. (456 words)

I spent last week in the small Greek city of Komotini which nestles in the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains near to the borders of Turkey and Bulgaria. It has a minority Muslim population, many of whom came from Turkey originally and formed a protected population under the Treaty of Lausanne. They have mostly chosen to stay in Greece through to recent times.

The Democritus University of Thrace was established in July 1973 and is based in Komotini, Greece, with other campuses in Xanthi, Alexandroupoli and Orestiada. The Social Work Department was established in the 1990s. I was invited to contribute to a conference on Social Austerity – Child Protection and Human Rights. Most of the contributions were in Greek with intermittent simultaneous translation. In addition to finding it difficult to concentrate on the translation when animated presenters were more of a draw, the fact that the written programme was all in Greek meant that the subject of each presentation was a surprise. Continue reading

Letter from the European Parliament: Promoting Quality Social Services with the ESF Plus

Mary Baginsky is Senior Research Fellow at the NIHR Health & Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London. (611 words)

Dr Mary Baginsky

Dr Mary Baginsky

I was invited to attend an event (9 April 2019) at the European Parliament organised by the European Social Network (ESN) to discuss ‘Promoting Quality Social Services with the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+)’. The ESN has over 125 member organisations in 33 European countries and supports the sharing of knowledge, practice and policies between social services across Europe. The event was hosted by Sofia Ribeiro, a Portuguese MEP and member of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. The focus was on how the ESF+, amounting to 120 million euros in the coming period, could be put to best use to support the work of social services across Europe. Even though there are UK members of ESN none were present at the meeting. Continue reading

‘Carelessness does more harm than a want of knowledge’ —Benjamin Franklin

Dr Mary BaginskyMary Baginsky is Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London. (1,005 words)

I have been conducting research for more years than I am prepared to admit – sometimes to myself. Much of it has been qualitative in nature, although often as part of a mixed approach methodology. So quantitative data have helped to define the issues to be explored in more depth through interviews and focus groups, for example, or qualitative work has been used to help identify the issues that should be explored through a survey. I am used to weighing concepts such as reliability, validity and generalisability when designing and carrying out projects and reporting their findings, whatever their provenance. I am also as fallible as anyone in not seeing an inherent flaw – that is where the wisdom of colleagues and, however imperfect, the peer review process can be invaluable. However, my experiences of the past few years have given me cause for concern. In conducting a review of evidence on an area where I have been working I have been shocked by some of the things I have found. It has led me to wonder if I would find the same level of errors if I looked long enough in other papers, books and articles. Continue reading

The Prato moment: thinking about leadership in social work education

Mary Baginsky, Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, introduces an invited post by Professor Charlotte Williams:

I was fortunate to have attended the second colloquium held at Monash University’s Prato centre. This is the second year that the group has come together to explore social work education. Prior to a more formal summary of proceeding, Professor Charlotte Williams, Professor and Deputy Dean of RMIT’s Social Work in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, reflects on the context and culture within which the discussions took place. In so doing she made me realise how much I miss the intensity of the discussions, the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others and the time to talk and disagree.—Mary Baginsky

Professor Charlotte Williams writes:


Professor Charlotte Williams

There’s a special magic about Prato that is so conducive to commune. The ambition of the Prato Group, a collaboration of Social Work educators, reflects many of the attributes of this ancient and vital textile producing city in which it was inaugurated. The Prato textile enterprise with its yarns, designs, collective and innovative technologies has approached its futures over an 800-year history with enormous creativity, energy and pragmatism in an effort to remain relevant, stable and future-oriented. Through epochs of profound social, economic, political and technological change the ability to anticipate, capture and engage judiciously with disruptive forces and to lead through change has meant a threatened industry thrived largely through the efforts of small and distributed artisans working with common purpose. Continue reading

Families and children’s services: international perspectives

Dr Mary BaginskyMary Baginsky is Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London. (565 words)

Early in September I had the privilege of attending the International Conference on New Perspectives for Outcome-Based Evaluation and Research on Families and Children’s Services’. It was held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and emerged from a collaboration between the University, the International Association for Outcome-based Evaluation and Research on Family and Children’s services (iaOBERfcs) and the Zancan Foundation, based in Padua, Italy. It brought together over 150 participants from 14 countries. The conference opened with children and young people performing traditional Chinese drumming and dragon dances and was followed by opening addresses and presentations. As interesting as the latter were, I was still contemplating how the girls at the back of the dragons had danced for 15 minutes while bent at an angle of 90 degrees. Continue reading

An insight into Behavioural Insight – or the evolution of a grudge about nudge

Dr Mary BaginskyMary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s. (830 words)

When the Department for Education published the Behaviour Insight Team’s (BIT) report on decision-making in intake teams in children’s services earlier this year the sharp intake of breath from many social work academics could be heard across the land, followed by a Twitter tirade. What had led to this?

In another place I have railed against the trend for think tanks and the like to label a shallow dip into a subject as ‘research’ and then to go on to make huge claims that are intended to, and sometimes do, influence policy. But in the past I have also been seduced by the ideas that have emerged from BIT, also known as the ‘nudge unit’. Its stated aim is to apply insights from academic research in behavioural economics and psychology to public policy and services. So when the unit advised the HMRC to change the wording on some of their letters, the result was an extra £200 million collected on time; and when it found that it was clearing the rubbish out of lofts that stood in the way of people insulating them they suggested providing a subsidised loft clearance and the rate at which insulation was happening soared. However, my admiration did not stretch to the findings of the report on social workers’ decision-making. Continue reading

Student placements in children’s service departments: lessons from Canada

Dr Mary Baginsky

Dr Mary Baginsky

Mary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London. Here she suggests how universities and social work services could be brought into closer partnership.

Both Martin Narey’s and David Croisdale-Appleby’s reviews of social work education have reported on the shortage of placements for social work students, as well as raising questions about consistency in the quality of those that do exist. The President of the Association of the Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), Andrew Webb, has also said that there is neither the range nor breadth of placements to keep pace with student numbers. Martin Narey went so far as to say that the endorsement process should include an evaluation of the quality of practice placements and recommended that universities which fail to provide every student with at least one statutory placement (or an alternative which is genuinely comparable and accepted by employers as comparable) should not receive endorsement from The College of Social Work. There is, perhaps, an alternative approach whereby the placements a student has completed on their registration are recorded. Anyone who had not completed a statutory placement in the relevant sector would then be required to do one subsequently if they wished to be employed in a statutory setting. The cost effectiveness of this would need to be calculated.

However, making this and similar suggestions does not get away from the seriousness of the situation facing courses and students, but neither is it confined to social work students. The Nursing Times (12 February 2014) reported that student nurses are struggling to get good practice placements because hospital wards are overstretched and staff too busy to supervise them.

It is not surprising that the pressures under which children’s service departments are operating and the number being judged to be inadequate by Ofsted are having an effect on the willingness of managers and practitioners to take students on placements. I am well aware of good practice around the country where universities and local authorities have established strong working relationships. They are usually distinguished by a commitment of the university and/or the local authority to take on responsibility for placements at a relatively senior level. This is usually linked with a commitment on the part of local authorities to embed placements in their workforce strategies and on the part of universities to provide a high level of support, not only to students but also to authorities. As training budgets are slashed and more authorities struggle to retain experienced staff such support from universities is an important factor in being placement-possible if not placement-friendly. In the past some authorities have complained that they have had to take what (and whom) universities have offered but the world has moved on. It is in the interests of both parties to collaborate over the training of existing and future practitioners and this is the conclusion that more authorities and universities are reaching.

Thirty-five years ago Hayward (1979) wrote that:

The assessment of practice aspects of the course has traditionally been regarded as different in quality and far more problematic than the assessment of coursework. (p.175)

Assessment of student practice is still the issue that is commonly cited by practice educators and university tutors as the one that is most likely to lead to disagreement, whether this is in terms of practice educators’ concerns about aspects of the student’s practice or perceived generosity or leniency of one party. On a recent visit to Canada I encountered two initiatives that could be introduced in this country and which have brought universities and social work services into closer partnership.

First, there are many examples in the literature that illustrate how individuals come to quite different outcomes when making an assessment and there are also many examples in the literature of attempts to devise competency-based checklists. One of the most reliable is the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE). The OSCE is used as an assessment tool for licensing exams in nursing, medicine, midwifery and other subjects in the UK, Australia, Canada and the United States. It is used to assess knowledge, clinical skills, and the transfer of knowledge into practice while providing a standardised assessment method irrespective of variations in client or assessor. Marion Bogo, Professor of Social Work at the University of Toronto, has developed an OSCE for social work which is now being used and adapted across Canada and USA. It consists of ‘laboratory’ interviews and structured reflective exercises to see how the student has integrated concepts. OSCE performance and reflections are rated on standardised scales. Initial tests and subsequent applications have shown that the test is a valid tool for assessing practice, even though further development is required. It is being adopted in a number of countries and the question arises as to why it is not as prominent in this country. It is time and labour intensive which, in the current climate, is likely to prove a disincentive. But it is hard to remember a time when this would not have been the case. As well as a potentially more reliable way of assessing students it also offers the opportunity for universities and practitioners to work together on its development.

The second suggestion comes from a visit to McGill University in Montreal. Anyone taking a student on placement who is attending McGill is required to take a course on supervision before the placement. Not only is this a way of attempting to ensure the quality of placements, it means practice educators engage with McGill at an early stage and the university then builds on this relationship in a number of ways. One way is by inviting their practice educators to regular meetings with the faculty members of the Social Work department. I was fortunate to be able to attend one of these meetings and I was struck both by the understanding of the course that the practice educators displayed and by the breadth and depth of the discussion. So while administrative and progress issues around the actual placements were covered, there was much more discussion of issues around the integration of theory and practice and of specific elements of the training. It was evident that there was a shared understanding of the curriculum, which must in turn benefit all involved but most of all the students on placement. It represented a real partnership of practice and academy that is often talked of but not often achieved in England. It is a model that would transfer to this country but again one that demands a significant level of commitment.

It may not seem the most sensible approach to suggest initiatives that will take even more time and application. But it seems that while social work courses have been forced to address the criticisms leveled against some academic input for its lack of rigour and consistency, similar standards need to be applied to placements and ones that go beyond the revised Practice Educator Professional Standards, however welcome these have been. Practice and professional trainers need to address this subject together. They will find many ways of doing so but perhaps these two examples could be in the portfolio of actions they consider.

Dr Mary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London. Follow Mary on Twitter: @abbotsky


Hayward, C. (1979) A Fair Assessment: Issues in Evaluating Coursework. London: CCETSW.

All change for social work – shifting the pieces but not the problems?

Dr Mary Baginsky

Dr Mary Baginsky

Dr Mary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit. Dr Baginsky, who leads a seminar on 3 December 2013 on Retaining experienced social workers in children’s services, here responds to the comments of the Education Secretary yesterday.

In speaking to the NSPCC on 12 November 2013 Michael Gove MP, the Secretary of State for Education, has pledged to overhaul the child protection system and reform social work training. It is not clear what the former will entail, but there is no mention of the multi-agency approach that has underpinned the system that has come to be known as ‘child protection’. There are references to failing authorities, Birmingham being specifically identified, as well as the success of Hackney. If only everything was so clear-cut. Money was available to achieve the reported transformation of Hackney—a great deal more would be required to do the same in Birmingham and that level of financial support does not seem to be forthcoming at a time when we are told the biggest cuts to council budgets are still to come. In addition we have lost the Children’s Improvement Board just at a time when it is needed to support ‘failing’ and ‘failed’ authorities and facilitate peer support that has been shown to work well.

How many social workers will be saying ‘no more system change for child protection and no more change for initial social work training’? Again it is not clear what is intended for social work training. The Secretary of State says that Step Up has been successful, but not successful enough at recruiting sufficient great people. So would one solution not be to extend the numbers on Step Up instead of supporting another route? But then do we know which people are now being recruited onto courses? Money would be well spent in improving the data sets around social work education so we can move from anecdote and guesswork to a position where we are able to make confident statements.

In the past six years there has been a range of initiatives that have transformed social work education, alongside the recommendations that came from the Social Work Task Force. The money to support many of these has now disappeared, but they have influenced practice and many local authorities are trying to sustain the work. Although based on anecdote it is anecdote that arises from numerous conversations around the country—many local authorities are commenting on the noticeable improvement in the quality of their newly qualified social workers. This is not to say that everything is perfect but we do need to acknowledge the strides that have been made. The really sensible thing would be to try to maintain this improvement and take steps to retain those committed and intelligent entrants who are already coming into the profession. The image that the Secretary of State appears to have of social work education and social work students will not help. Too much listening to the radio programme ‘Clare in the Community’ perhaps—which is so funny because it is so extreme and atypical.

Mary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London. She is author, with Claire Teague, of Speaking from Experience: the views of the first cohort of trainees of Step Up to Social Work (Department for Education, June 2013).

Dr Baginsky leads a seminar on 3 December 2013 ‘Retaining experienced social workers in children’s services: the challenge facing local authorities in England’ based on her report of the same title (August 2013)—places still available, attendance is free.

@abbotsky | @scwru

A new approach to social work recruitment in the United States

Dr Mary Baginsky

Dr Mary Baginsky

Mary Baginsky, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s and an expert on the UK Step Up to Social Work programme, reports on a New York initiative, the Children’s Corps.

I have also come to learn the difference between ‘feeling unsafe and just feeling out of place’. There have been many times when I feel out of place but I am getting over that.—A Children’s Corps Programme member

There is an increasing interest in the United States (US) in trying to ensure that those who are employed in children’s welfare services know what is ahead of them. What have been called ‘realistic job interviews’ attempt to give applicants a deeper insight into what the job entails. They are proving to be reasonably effective where the job is complex or difficult and where there are high turnover rates early on in careers, as well as where aspects of the work may not be fully understood by applicants. By giving them a real idea of the challenges the chances of retaining good staff increase. In the UK many of those recruiting onto social work programmes already do this explicitly or implicitly. We are also seeing some targeting of resources (such as the bursary) at people with prior experience with the idea that this will pay dividends in quality and retention.

The UK Step Up to Social Work programme has now recruited its third cohort. It is targeted at those with a good degree (defined as a first or upper second) as well as significant experience with children and young people. Time will tell what the retention rate is like but the feedback from trainees indicated that their prior experience was invaluable, even if they felt it was not always recognised by the universities or agencies where they were based. On the other side of the Atlantic another similar initiative has also just recruited its third cohort. Once again experience is at the heart of the thinking about how to attract and retain good social workers of the future.

Based in New York, Fostering Change for Children recruits college graduates as well as existing professionals on to the Children’s Corps programme. They all have to be prepared to commit to work in foster care and preventive services in New York City (NYC) for two years. The hope is that many of those who are accepted onto the programme will go on to qualify and practise as social workers. In fact some of those in all three cohorts already have a Bachelors degree in Social Work and see the programme as a way of gaining experience before embarking on a Master’s course. Since 2011, 88 Children’s Corps members have been placed in jobs in foster care agencies and preventive programmes across NYC. The receiving agencies are not expected to provide any additional support and the Corps members are no different from any other employee.

The Children’s Corps programme was inspired by Teach for America and shares its hallmark traits of emphasizing selection, training and support. Its message is that child welfare work is rewarding, but is also complex and demanding; it takes a strong and motivated individual to succeed in the field. The application and recruitment process is rigorous and involves realistic interviewing techniques and resilience testing to try to ensure they get people prepared for tough work in difficult environments. The programme starts with a five-week intensive summer school, but there is no funding to support the participants so they must have or need to find the resources to survive in New York without a stipend. The staff of Fostering Change for Children realise that there is a danger that it will therefore tend to attract those who have enough funds or supportive parents to see them through.

In May I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time with four Corps members while I was in the US as part of my Churchill Fellowship. Two of the four did not fit this profile. One had come to the US from the Caribbean when she was eight and said she had always been encouraged by her mother to give back to the society where they had made their home. She had recently married and the couple was able to live on one salary until she started earning. Another member had borrowed money from her family that she paid back when she started to receive a salary.

While the summer school was said to be excellent they all admitted that they had faced a steep learning curve when they joined their agencies. The average turnover in fostering agencies in NYC is 40 per cent, which meant that those coming towards the end of their second year had seen almost all their original colleagues leave. To say they were dealing with very difficult cases is an understatement and, at times, they had all wondered if they could go on. The quality of the supervision they received in the agencies had varied as this person told me:

For the first nine months of my job when all these workers were leaving it was a very negative work environment – it was not supportive and you were very much on your own. You had seven families assigned to you – I had 19 children assigned as a result. Sometimes I wouldn’t even know what I was supposed to be doing. I had some really old cases that were very hard. I thought about quitting every other day – may be at one point every day. I used to come home late at night after working a 12-hour day and I would cry – I was so exhausted. I did not know how I’d be able to go back the next day. It was very hard.

This person did not quit and is now studying for a MSW. But, as with her colleagues, she attributed her survival to the support she received from Children’s Corps. Not only does each member have a mentor whom they can use as much or as little as they want, the organisation provides monthly training sessions that also offer the opportunity for peer support as well as additional training. The retention level has been good across the early cohorts. Of the four Corps members I met three intended to qualify and practise as social workers and the fourth is deciding between that and going on to become a clinical psychologist, where she admitted she would earn more and probably attract more professional respect. The experience they have gained means that those going into the profession do so with a very realistic expectation of what the work is like. They have also learnt that if they are to stay in the profession they will have to seek out support if it is not immediately available.

Mary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London. She is author, with Claire Teague, of Speaking from Experience: the views of the first cohort of trainees of Step Up to Social Work (Department for Education, June 2013). Follow Mary on Twitter: @abbotsky

Go to the Fostering Change for Children websiteChildren’s Corps blog