Co-operation between local authorities within the region and between agencies is the norm. This results in early interventions that avoid crisis management later, as well as promoting innovative practices for social workers, writes Rowenna Davies
Ever thought of taking a job in the North West? Now might be the time. Where other councils are beginning to shut down job offers in the recession, the North West still has a high number of vacancies, house prices are more than 30% lower than the national average and councils work together rather than compete to put their users first.
“We share a sense of aspiration and a shared moral purpose,” says Peter Morgan, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services for the North West and strategic director of children’s services for Sefton. “I’m extremely proud of the progress we’ve made at collaborating across the region to deliver universal services that still manage to cater for specialist needs.”
This spirit of community – so famous in the North West – is now helping the region pull through the recession. The regional heads of children’s services meet every six weeks, and in the wake of the cuts they called a 24-hour conference to discuss how best to preserve services by working in partnership and sharing best practice.
Some innovative projects are already underway. The Learning Together Partnership, composed of a group of local authorities in Merseyside, is developing a “school support model” to try and reduce the blow of cuts to specialist education services.
By providing extra curricular support across the region in things like languages and early years rather than through each individual authority, important resources can be saved on administration and duplication, allowing provision to continue.
The North West already has good links in place for multilateral working. In the wake of the baby P case, the police now have a sub-regional presence on local safeguarding children’s boards and practitioners work in close partnership with the family courts. “One of our greatest strengths is that we work with partners before a crisis happens,” says Morgan, “We find that reduces our costs in the long run.”
Dominic Tumelty, service head for social care and health at Stockport, has practised social work in the North West for more than 20 years, and still has no desire to leave. “I stayed this long because you can always run with new developments and use your initiative,” he says, “If you have an idea that’s cogent and likely to improve outcomes for children and families then we’ll take that on and start piloting it.”
One of Tumelty’s proudest initiatives is the introduction of social workers in schools. “It started off with a conversation with a head teacher who said he could tell which families would be walking through our doors in a few years time,” he explains. “We started placing social workers in schools for half a day or two days a week, and it was so successful we’re now in over 40 schools. The parents get to meet us when they come through the school door, which reduces stigma, and the social workers really enjoy the old fashioned face-to-face social work.”
Stockport is known for its successful partnerships with health as well as the education sector. The authority’s children’s services have a health visitor seconded onto their duty team to help with joint working, protocols and the referral process. Practitioners say that it helps having someone who speaks “health language” on the team who can also help spread the message of social work back to health colleagues.
Although vacancy rates in the North West are high at 11%, there are currently no vacancies in Stockport’s children’s team. Tumelty puts this down to proper investment in his workforce. Every year practitioners can choose between a lump sum bonus equivalent to 3.5% of salary or an extra day’s leave.
They are encouraged to take up home working if it suits them and are issued smart phones to facilitate flexible working.
Morgan recognises that not all areas of the North West are so successful, and many areas still rely too heavily on agencies. But changes are underway. Local authorities are working on a two-year partnership with the Children’s Workforce Development Council known as Step Up to Social Work, which is designed to attract good honours graduates into the profession.
Meanwhile, seven local authorities are piloting Merseyside Learning Partnerships that offer combined academic and practical placements with Manchester and Chester Universities and local councils. This year they received 120 applications for 40 places, but they plan to open the scheme again next year.
“Attracting and recruiting people to the North West is very important to us,” says Morgan. “It’s an exciting and vibrant place to work whether you like city life or the coastline. Cumbria, Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire and Cheshire are all very attractive places to work and bring up families. Anyone interested in joining us should get in touch.”
A social worker’s view: community is very important here
Sarah Shotten, 26, is a child-care social worker in the family support team for Blackburn with Darwen Council
“I came here when I first qualified over three years ago, and I’ve never wanted to work anywhere else. When I first came to Blackburn on a placement, I knew it would be difficult, but in the end that’s why I chose it – I love the challenge.
“The sense of community here is important. The head of services is just down the corridor, and the team managers have an open door policy, which means that decisions can be made quickly. Of course, it’s not easy – I am looking after 15 to 25 children at one time and you’re always playing catch up – but people do listen and offer help if you need it.
“Blackburn is quite a deprived area and certain wards have high rates of neglect and substance abuse. There are pockets of heroin and alcohol addiction and of course all the behavioural issues that come with that. But you can make a difference. One of my proudest achievements was helping a mum to manage her alcohol problems, which eventually meant her son could be rehabilitated out of care and come home.
“I’m pleased to say we do an awful lot of early intervention. We have 14 children’s centres in a very small space, which means they are in walking distance for almost everyone. The centres offer practical parenting advice and help introduce parents to intervention – that means there is not so much stigma if we need to intervene later.
“We’ve also got some interesting pilot work happening, including a therapeutic foster placement scheme. This intensive programme offers high-level support to young people if mainstream placements are failing. They spend 12 months in our centre, and we find that they are often able to go back to their placements or even return home afterwards.
“As for vacancies, I don’t think we have any spaces on this team at the moment, but we do have a rolling intake programme. We have two agency workers, but they tend to stay long term because they appreciate how we work. They know that a good level of resources and early intervention can make a strong difference.”
NORTH WEST KEY FACTS
● A population of 6.9 million – the largest regional population outside London and the South East.
● Forty-one local authorities.
● 72% employment rate.
● Average house price £116,009 (April 09), well below the median price for England and Wales.
● The proportion of North West people aged 16 or under was 18.9% in 2008 while 19.4% were pensionable age or over.
● Migration within the UK – 95,200 moved into the region in 2007-8, while 103,200 left.
● Immigration – adult overseas nationals in the North West in 2008-9 was 42,940, a decrease of 8,240 (16.1%) on the previous year.
● The region-wide populace is forecast to grow by 2.3% by 2011 – partly as a result of the region’s appeal as an employment location.
Figures were compiled with the help of the North West Regional development Agency (NWDA), the body charged with helping the economic development and regeneration of England’s North West http://www.nwda.co.uk