Waltham Forest Council’s bid for resilience among children

Service managers are looking beyond immediate needs to build skills for future survival. Corin Williams reports

There’s a word popular with football managers – “bouncebackability”. It is seen as an essential characteristic for any successful team: the ability to not just survive a disaster or setback, but to thrive in its wake.

This concept, under the banner of “resilience”, is also becoming more popular with local authorities in relation to their duty of care to looked-after children. Service managers are starting to look beyond the immediate need to protect children and young people from harm, to giving them the skills they need to overcome the inevitable problems life throws at them. It is estimated that 30% of looked-after children run into serious problems in later life, and the resilience agenda has been touted as a way of tackling this as well as reducing youth offending.

Waltham Forest Council is one of the first local authorities to take steps to introduce a culture of resilience within their children’s services. Helping them is Tony Newman, a researcher at Barnardo’s and a leading authority on resilience. He points out that, despite the idea having been around for a long time, relatively little work has been done around its practical application.

“This isn’t just a failing of government, it’s a general unwillingness to grasp the fact that resilience isn’t all about happy endings,” he says. “It’s also about recognising that being resilient isn’t just about making people nice, pro-social and well-adjusted. It’s about recognising that damaged children may never fully recover and that our task is equipping them with whatever emotional and technical skills they need in order to survive.”

So how is Waltham Forest going about creating a service that develops children’s resilience? Margaret Burke, group manager of the looked-after children’s service, says they first had to bounce back from their own adversity. She says: “It started a little while ago, following an inspection we had in 2001 which we failed. We were allocated a performance action team to work alongside us to look at how we could recover.”

Changing the culture of a large organisation – and the way partner agencies work with children – means winning the hearts and minds of a diverse range of professionals. “We established a project team of about 19 different people that included looked-after children, foster carers, social workers, somebody from our education section, and so on,” says Burke. “From this, the Resilience Framework was produced.”

Despite resilience forming a key part of the Care Matters: Time for Change agenda, the lack of practical application out there means Waltham Forest is reliant on experts such as Newman and independent social worker Sally Wassell. A conference involving Wassell held last June proved to be the kick-start Burke was looking for. “It brought 230 staff together. We wanted to make sure everyone knew what we were talking about and it helped us to introduce the theme.”

Any new idea can seem nebulous and complicated at first, but Burke stresses the simple basic premise. She says: “It’s about getting to know your young person, developing that relationship and teaching them basic skills that they have missed out on.”

Burke gives an example of a 17-year-old whose key worker gave 10 hours a week support to him through his exams. After a review, the number of hours of support was halved. But, in the summer holiday, he found again that he was feeling isolated and depressed, and the hours of support had to increase. “The difference is that the key worker should have been working with him to show him how to make friends, how to interact. They should not have been just keeping him company,” argues Burke. “This is the way we want our staff to work.”

Implementation is one thing, but measuring the success of a resilience service isn’t easy. “We need targets that actually make sense, not just offending rates and numbers of GCSEs, although those are helpful,” says Burke. She suggests that the number of self-referrals to a drugs service, for instance, could be an indicator of success.

The lack of existing council resilience services made it hard to establish one from scratch, and Burke’s team looked instead to different voluntary sector projects, such as the Barnardo’s Arch project in Birmingham. For local authorities embarking on a whole-service approach to developing children’s resilience in the future, Waltham Forest can now help to light the way.

➔ Find out more: sade.alade@walthamforest.gov.uk

This article appeared in the 16 August issue under the headline “On a path of most resilience”

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