In 2000, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University in the United States, published his book Bowling Alone to widespread acclaim. In it, Putnam described how Americans were becoming increasingly disconnected from their communities, using the metaphor of bowling. In the US people used to bowl in leagues but, increasingly, they are bowling alone – and this isolation has spread to all sectors of life.
A book by a US academic may seem an unusual starting point for work in schools in Milton Keynes but it is Putnam’s idea of rebuilding social capital by reconnecting communities that is one of the cornerstones of the preventive work carried out by Simon Langley, a schools-based social worker in Milton Keynes.
“One of the few real social capital networks left is the school system,” says Langley. “And with extended schools and things like breakfast clubs the school is becoming even more central to the community,” he says.
Langley’s post is unusual in that he does not carry out any referrals or assessments – his work is purely preventive. He says his post is unique in that it is jointly funded by the local authority and 18 primary and secondary schools in the area. It was designed to bridge the gap between social care and education, helping schools promote the Every Child Matters agenda. As well as helping to end social isolation his work has three other guiding principles:
● The projects and courses he runs are inclusive and open to everyone.
● There is no early labelling or assessment of children and families.
● Working with parents is key.
Langley runs a range of courses and this month will unveil a website called the Virtual Social Worker, which gives pupils the opportunity to chat online to him and other pastoral workers in real time.
But the course that best exemplifies his work is Families and Schools Together (Fast), a project he has undertaken with 31 families in a local infant school and that is due to launch at a secondary school shortly.
Fast was developed in the US by a social worker called Lynn McDonald, now an academic at Brunel University in the UK, and when Langley first heard about it he knew straightaway it was applicable to a UK setting.
“Fast could have been written for the Every Child Matters agenda. It ticks all the right boxes and it talks about early intervention at every level. It goes much deeper than current early intervention models,” he says.
Strengthen family bonds
Fast is an eight-week course for children and all members of their family designed to strengthen family bonds and to encourage families to become more involved with the school. The families start the course by designing a family flag and posing for a group photo. They take it in turns to cook a meal that they eat together and then take part in a series of activities. These include:
● One-on-one time for a parent and child where they discuss a range of issues.
● A game called feeling charades where family members take it in turns to act out different emotions.
● An activity where the family is given a range of objects that are made into game or a toy with the adult following the child’s lead.
Liz Hand, a single mother of four, uses some of the techniques she learned as a parent leader on the Fast course. “I say to my kids ‘don’t shout at your sister, draw your feelings on a piece of paper’. We also sit together at the table and we talk about what was good about our day.”
She adds: “I believe in Fast. When the families sit at the table with their flag and picture, it gives them such a strong sense of belonging together as a family unit. It gives them a feeling of pride in their own family.”
It is because all families are invited to attend the course regardless of their social situation, that Langley believes Fast avoids the stigma that some early intervention programmes can carry. And, because no labelling or assessment of children or families goes on and it is other parents who lead the course, trust is built up between the families and Langley.
“The course builds social capital because it involves parents and families in the life of the school in a much deeper way,” he says. “It also empowers families, giving them the context of the wider support available if they need it. Families realise that the social worker is a professional and is actually all right. Families have come to the pastoral staff in the school and asked for support – they would never have done that before taking part in the course.”
Working with schools
Schools-based social worker Simon Langley gives his top tips for successful partnerships.
● Ensure schools have a genuine commitment to engaging with the school community.
● Make sure you allow enough time for training and planning.
● Be prepared for a change in school culture, with parents becoming more involved in the school.
● More on Bowling Alone
This article is published in the 2 October edition of Community Care under the headline “Different class”