This is an occasional newsletter regarding the Signs of Safety England Innovations Project.
Signs of Safety Newsletter

#8 February 2016


The Signs of Safety EIP workshop in January occurred, as always, at a time of big challenges—complex work, radicalisation, child sexual exploitation and resource reductions—with expectations nevertheless high. The workshop continued to look towards sustaining what has been achieved in the EIP project and what needs to be done longer term. 


Appreciative Inquiry – an Engine Room for Learning


Appreciative inquiry is a detailed interview about what has worked in a case.

Appreciative inquiry is the engine room of Signs of Safety, as these extracts form the Signs of Safety Comprehensive Briefing Paper (2015 p45,46) explain:

  • ‘Competency is quiet; it tends to be overlooked in the noise and clatter of problems’. (William Madsen, 2007.)
  • The Signs of Safety approach has evolved progressively by first teaching practitioners the approach and then shifting from training to action-learning mode by asking the workers how using the approach has been useful to them.
  • Appreciative inquiry is an approach to organisational change focusing on successful, rather than problematic, organisational behaviour. 
  • The engine room of any Signs of Safety implementation involves embedding a culture of appreciative inquiry around frontline practice across the organisation. This is a radical paradigm shift from the usual anxiety-driven researching failure.
  • Appreciative inquiry should become embedded in regular individual and group supervision. It is also vital that senior management replicate this process and practice, particularly when crises occur. 
  • Inquiring into and honouring what works (with families and practitioners) creates increased openness and energy to look at behaviours that are problematic, dysfunctional or destructive. 
  • Appreciative inquiry enables child protection staff to reclaim pride and confidence in their work. 

 Using our EARS for the appreciative inquiry interview

  • Elicit – ask the first question
  • Amplify – more questions to get at the behavioural detail; what, who, when, how; what would or do you actually see; lots of relationship questions (what would the child, the mother, etc etc, say?)
  • Reflect – questions to search for the meaning; exploring the significance of the behavior to those involved; and what has been learnt by the worker; recognizing that there are always different perspectives
  • Start over – new first question and repeat the process

In the same way as case work needs a trajectory (a goal and steps to get there and knowing you are on track) while being agile and responsive, so does an appreciative inquiry interview.

Reflections and learning from an appreciative inquiry into a case

The case presented at the workshop involved safety planning and networks, pre birth intervention, working effectively with partner agencies, and the need for active leadership involvement; among what most impressed leaders about the practice was: 

  • People galvanized around the quality of the work, they weren’t blinded by the past and fearful of the other people’s worries 
  • Tenacity of the work, not giving up
  • Commitment of the time to continue
  • Learning from opportunities that arise in the case, getting an insight into strengths
  • So often we see risk instead of being brave in exploring what was really happening. 
  • Very courageous practice.
  • Whole system approach – inclusivity and vision and leadership.  
  • Rather than tell her what to do, this young woman had to think for herself 
  • Networks featured all the way through the case.
  • Social Worker had the backing of the senior managers to take this route.
  • Signs of Safety offered the structure to do this.

Appreciative inquiry is not cheerleading. We need to create practice depth through curiosity and inquiring into what works with forensic detail.  


Leading for Practice – Making the Time


"To do something new, you have to let go of something old" (Peter Drucker)

The more senior the leadership position, the more demands there are on the leader that do not have an impact, or certainly not a direct impact, on practice. Leaders assessed where they actually spend their time dividing it across a long list of demands they face.  The indicative results were both a challenge and in part encouraging. 

Time for developing practice 

  • Directors – 5%
  • Assistant directors – 5 to 10 to 15%
  • Practice manager – 20% 
  • Team manager – 15% on supervision
  • Service development manager – 50% 
  • Signs of Safety project lead – 60% 

Where most of the time goes

  • Directors – face to face site visits, strategic planning and partnership, partners, politicians
  • Assistant directors – partnership, planning, budget
  • Principal social workers – practice delivery 28%, communications 50%
  • Team manager – emails!
  • IRO manager – problematic staff issues 30%

What struck leaders most about doing the assessment was how easy it is to lose the practice. And when asked, ‘what would front line staff have said’, they replied, ‘leaders are 80% desk bound’!

So, what needs to shift to spend more time leading for practice?

  • Make sure there is  time in the diary every week to observe practice or discuss it
  • Stay focused on what’s important in practice – attention to detail, focus on skill and specifics
  • Retain enthusiasm for practice
  • Reduce number and length of meetings
  • Do more appreciative inquiry in supervision
  • Spend more time with partners
  • Make a public commitment to doing or seeing practice

Dame Moira Gibb reflecting on her time as a director, recalled the local authority’s mantra of 'an obsession with the front line’, for everyone, even the director of finance!


Less Process and More Practice – Reforming Case Management


Local authorities are nearing the end of practice reform projects that have been looking to make practice more continuous and consistent, and so more streamlined.

Case examples and reports on policy and process reform from each local authority will inform the action research report and final Signs of Safety practice guideline documents. 

The projects have covered:

  • Front door to conferencing embedding Signs of Safety practice in streamlined case management processes 
  • Continuum of service applying Signs of Safety / Signs of Something from early help through social care to looked after children 
  • Applying Signs of Safety through the Public Law Outline process.  

Practice guidelines will be publicly available at the end of March. 

Some exciting developments are:

  • Single assessment and plan for the life of the case that evolves with the family, applicable from early help through to looked after children
  • Fewer and redesigned forms that actually fit the practice
  • Partner agencies referrals and reports aligning with how the practice occurs and the family experiences the work

The most significant restraints to these reforms have been statutory requirements, information technology systems, and the human instinct to create more not less forms. All of these can be addressed, albeit at different speeds!


Quality Assurance

The development of a Signs of Safety quality assurance system, designed to be useful in whole or in part to local authorities is on track. 

The system has three parts – case audit tools based on Signs of Safety results logic designed to be used collaboratively, surveys of families and staff reflecting the fidelity of the practice experience and the organizational fit, and a core data set to monitor progress of cases in teams, services and the local authority.

The case audit tools have been trialed in local authorities. Key findings are:

  • Overall worked really well. Showed a lot about what is actually happening. Provides insight into quality of practice 
  • Time consuming 
  • Better to have one tool to cover mapping and safety planning rather than two
  • Adapted some of the language

The family and staff feedback surveys will be those that have been used for the action research and have been found to be practical and informative. 

The core data is being defined to be a subset of a proposed streamlined national core data set being recommended to DfE for setting what local authorities are required to report. 


Information Management That Fits the Practice – Can It Be Done?


The development of a prototype information management system that will be a realistic simulation on a tablet, suitable for informing providers to tender for development, is on track.

Meanwhile, at the January workshop, the William Schricker Group (WSG), a national statutory child protection agency from The Netherlands for children and families with developmental delay, presented SLIM. This is an assessment and planning information management system that also provides the reports to families as well as courts and within WSG. 

The report, comprising the assessment and the plan, with the danger statement and safety goals being the analysis, links to the WSG data base and forms part of the child’s file.

The structure of the assessment and planning, the report, in SLIM



Sustaining the Journey


Recognising the Munro Review of English Child Protection Services [2011] conclusions that the children’s services system had become locked into a defensive compliance culture, underpinned by unnecessary and overly bureaucratic procedures resulting in social workers spending less time working directly with children and families and more time feeding the system, the Signs of Safety EIP project has been to transform children’s services with Signs of Safety practice at the centre.  This is a complex whole of system effort involving implementation of Signs of Safety, leadership development and aligning organisational arrangements to support and strengthen the practice including through quality assurance and information management systems.

There are encouraging results being shown in all the participating local authorities, validated most encouragingly by Ofsted reports on inspections with the local authorities. 

The ‘Signs of Safety’ approach to child protection practice is providing an established framework to help identify risk and protective factors and is beginning to achieve improvements in social work practice. (P7). The inspection saw early evidence in casework, case recording and supervision of this model providing a clear and analytical approach to social work. Social workers reported it being helpful in their practice. (P37)

The local authority’s introduction of the Signs of Safety approach, although not yet fully embedded in all practice, is a significant development. Where social workers and other professionals use this approach, assessments of children’s needs contain fuller information, better analysis and a stronger focus on children’s wishes and feelings. This leads to plans and the services that meet children’s needs. (P29)

Where the Signs of Safety model is used to assess children’s needs, there is an emphasis on risk factors and children are central to the assessment. Where it is not used, assessments are too adult-focused and overly optimistic, leading to drift and delay for some children. (Page 3)


Nevertheless, organisational transformation in the face of the system Munro described in 2011 can be fragile due to a combination of leadership changes, entrenched systems that are slow to align (particularly information management), workload challenges, and the time it takes to grow the skills and capacity of large and varied staff groups. And a period of eighteen months is brief.  

All the local authorities participating in the Signs of Safety EIP are determined to continue their implementations and maintain their collective learning and development. Some of the continuing developments and next steps to drive the journey might be:

  • the group of ten local authorities continuing to meet 
  • the leadership development continuing 
  • annual or bi-annual Signs of Safety all UK leadership workshops
  • extending streamlined case management processes beyond the front door to conference reforms (and extension of the 15 day exemption)
  • core data system
  • growing the capacity for the family network approach  
  • further application of Signs of Safety across the continuum of service including more focus on to children in care that are high risk and young offenders 
  • developing the approach to work with people who are even more socially isolated or with marginalized groups

And so, the final EIP leadership workshop in March 2016 will look to distill what we have learnt and achieved and what lies ahead that is yet to do. It will focus on:

  • It’s all about practice AND leading for practice
  • Presentations from each local authority about their journey over the EIP project period - learning, achievements and next steps
  • MTM proposal for sustainability



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