Having social workers in schools has long been lauded as beneficial for the health and well-being for all children, not just the disadvantaged and vulnerable ones. From children’s trusts to extended schools and the aims of Every Child Matters, the drive to bring services together continues to gain momentum.
Last December’s Children’s Plan developed this by stating that the government sees schools as the hub through which services are accessed. The plan says: “By 2010, all schools will be providing access to a range of extended services.” It wants all schools to offer activities including support for study and parents, and “swift and easy referral to specialist and targeted services”.
A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesperson says the government does not necessarily expect there to be “more social workers in schools” but for there to be swifter and easier access to services, through co-locating them in places where families go.
Co-locating social work services in schools is also something the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) is backing through its remodelling social work delivery (RSWD) project. In April the CWDC began the three-year RSWD project in 11 pilot areas in England. The pilots aim to improve outcomes for children by testing new approaches and developing evidence-based social work through co-locating social workers in a statutory setting and a school or health centre. One local authority taking part is Westminster (see panel).
Keith Brumfitt, CWDC’s director of research and development, says the overall project will test and disseminate models of how improved ways of working contribute to better outcomes for children and young people during the project and long term.
“These issues are important because children and young people tell us that consistency of social worker is one of the chief ways to improve social work intervention and their outcomes.”
It is up to the local authorities involved in the pilots to decide whether to co-locate social workers in their schools and, according to Brumfitt, the ones that have “have found this effective”.
The advantages of locating social workers in schools are familiar to Jane Held, former director of Camden Council’s children’s services and now an independent consultant and professional adviser to the Local Government Association’s children and young people team. “Children don’t live in bubbles and we have provided services in bubbles for too long,” she says. “Putting services together means they can recognise what each other is doing and if they are doubling up.”
In a school environment social workers can do more preventive face-to-face work with children and develop joint assessment with fellow practitioners while teachers can focus on their core responsibility of teaching. Teaching Development Agency national programme adviser Caroline Coles says this approach leads to speedier referrals and early intervention and support before a situation becomes a problem.
“There is evidence that schools with social workers have fewer pupils excluded and there are fewer inappropriate referrals to services because social workers know who to refer to,” she adds.
Quicker access to support
But such an approach does have its problems. Andrew Cozens, the Improvement and Development Agency’s strategic adviser for children’s and adults services, warns there is a risk that the identified social worker is the only person other professionals rely on to deal with cases.
“When you have a children’s centre or an extended service it’s confusing for parents to go through a triage of professionals before their needs are met. If all practitioners had the same skills and awareness the child and their family could access the support quicker,” says Cozens.
Despite these concerns, Cozens says some small local authorities are opting for this approach and it is leading to a more informal exchange and an easier discussion about any concerns or risks regarding children.
Need for cultural change
Coles believes that more needs to be done to help encourage some schools to embrace this change and welcome social care professionals into their realm: “There are still some schools who think looking after children is ‘their job’ and they should handle it.” She adds that a cultural change needs to happen to bring the children’s workforce together more effectively.
However, Held sees a potential problem in social workers in schools becoming isolated from their peers. This can be overcome, she says, through regular supervision and contact with their team manager and colleagues.
The impact on social work practice of co-locating social workers in schools is largely seen as a positive one. Free from some of the constraints of being office-based, social workers can do what they do best. “It’s all part of reclaiming social work and will improve practitioners’ practice by allowing them to intervene in a holistic way,” says Held.
With the firm commitment in the Children’s Plan to make services work more closely and a live CWDC pilot under way it is an exciting time for social workers going back to school.
The Children’s Plan: Building Brighter Futures, Department for Children, Schools and Families, December 2007
Remodelling Social Work Delivery project
Case study: North Westminster pilot
Helen Farrell (pictured) is the remodelling social work co-ordinator for Westminster Council’s children’s department which is involved in the CWDC pilot. A qualified social worker, she took the job at the pilot – which operates across two primary schools, a health centre and a secondary academy in north Westminster – because of its innovative approach.
“It feels very different from traditional social work, which is based in a council office. Now we work alongside teachers and other professionals and we all learn from each other.”
Farrell oversees two senior practitioners, two social workers, a social work assistant, a training and learning development co-ordinator and an administrator known as a “bureaucracy buster”.
Social worker Stephanie Yeshurun is based in one of the primary schools from 8.30am until 5pm, two days a week, with a third day spent in the office following up cases.
She finds that working directly in a primary school is rewarding: “It can be scary to get in touch with social workers because it used to mean intervention. Now I’m much more approachable because the service is voluntary. Parents have a different view of social workers and that’s one of the aims of the project.”
Farrell and Yeshurun agree they want other schools and children’s services departments to follow the example of their work when the CWDC pilots end in 2011. Farrell says: “I’m confident the hypothesis will be proved that children, their parents and schools benefit from having social workers based in schools.”
For The Big Picture read social worker Rachel Mulcahy’s account of being based in a Staffordshire school