Opportunity Knox

In a large rural county such as Durham with many small and relatively isolated pockets of deprivation, there is no way that social services can have a presence in every community if it acts alone. The nearest social services centre may be three bus rides away, hardly an incentive for families to attend a service that they may feel feel ambivalent about using. So there are obvious advantages in pooling resources with other service providers.

Fortunately for Knox Walton, family services team manager in the north of Durham, both voluntary and statutory agencies operating in the county are keen to work with social services. He says: “We were doing a lot of joint working anyway. The Children Bill and the move towards children’s centres has just given it extra impetus. But it’s taken a lot of hard work to move towards a shared agenda.”

Walton established a working group at practice level for voluntary and statutory agencies working with families. “The first step was to map what different agencies were doing to see if we could make links. At first there was no sense of a joint agenda. Now there’s a gradual transformation into an approach where we can work together.”

Part of Walton’s remit is to move away from high threshold, narrowly targeted services towards universal provision. He says: “We were good at attracting hard-to-reach clients and being cost-effective. But I’m trying to develop services that cover the whole spectrum and are not just aimed at people in crisis. If the service is open to everyone, it’s not seen as a big issue to use it.”

An example of the kind of collaborative project that Walton’s team are involved is a “weigh and stay” group at a community house in Derwentside. “Health visitors found that attendance at the baby clinic varied enormously, and that parents wanted somewhere that was more convenient. Rather than going into a health clinic and just picking up milk tokens, they wanted some space where they could talk to each other. The group is aimed at reducing the isolation of parents and other adult carers of very young children while helping people to access other services,” says Walton.

The idea for the group came from a team member’s discussion with a health visitor. “We invited West Derwentside Sure Start in, and they had some ideas. Through joint discussion we refined the proposal.” Walton says: “We wanted to provide something for mums coming in with older kids. I don’t have any crŠche resources in my budget, but Sure Start was willing to provide that. We’ve been able to build a relationship with programme managers so that they will work outside their areas.”

The group is attended by one of Walton’s team as well as a health visitor, and the crŠche is, of course, crucial. “Having established the framework, it’s up to those using the group to decide how it moves forward. We’ll have to respond to issues as they arise. For example, getting someone to talk about weaning if that’s what the users want or asking someone from welfare rights to come in.”

Walton says that joint working, as well as reducing duplication, can help partner agencies reach their targets. “Our aim is to reduce the numbers referred to the children in need team and ultimately for child protection. We can’t do that without working with other agencies. Sometimes, it takes some discussion to see how a particular approach can help each of us reach our targets.”

Walton sees collaboration over training as a way of strengthening co-operation between agencies and reducing service overlap. When professionals from different backgrounds attend training together, they gain insights into each other’s ways of working and begin to recognise what different agencies may have to offer. He finds it makes sense to choose one person from his team to attend, say, domestic violence training alongside someone from Sure Start and a colleague from health.

But getting other agencies to engage with the idea about joint training didn’t happen overnight: “It’s taken a while. I feel like I’ve spent half my life in meetings. Sometimes you just have to keep plugging away,” Walton adds ruefully.

Curriculum vitae   

Name: Knox Walton.

Job: Family services team manager, Durham Council.

Qualifications: BA (Hons) in Sociology (Liverpool University); Diploma in Social Work (Manchester University).

Last Job: Manager of children in need team.

First Job: Assistant hotel manager.

Top tips 

  • Find out what potential partners are already doing and explore the scope for making links with existing services. 
  • Look for opportunities for strengthening working relationships with partners through joint training. 
  • Be patient – developing relationships with partner agencies takes time.   

Rubbish tips 

  • Challenge everyone’s practice as soon as you arrive. 
  • Blow your training budget by sending everyone on the same course. 
  • Make sure you take the lead role in everything – it’s good for others to see how driven you are.

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