Operation Fox brings social work to school

Having a social worker on site would benefit many schools but most children’s services departments cannot stretch this far. Martin Henderson, headteacher at Westmorland Primary School in Brinnington, a deprived part of Stockport, was faced with such a situation. The school had identified families where children’s basic needs were being met but more low level problems weren’t, such as tiredness, children being withdrawn and erratic school attendance. Henderson felt that a social worker’s involvement would help.

As a result he met Dominic Tumelty, service manager for family support services in the borough, and decided to use some of the school’s own budget to fund a social work post. Just over a year ago the service, then known as Operation Fox (after the social worker involved) and now renamed as Social Care Partnerships in Schools, was launched.

It involves Gill Fox, a senior social worker in Stockport Council’s children’s services department, being based at the school for four hours every Friday morning. School staff are able to refer children who are starting to display problems early on and she can then work with them to stop situations deteriorating. The post costs Westmorland £24 an hour a week, a sum Henderson sees as well worth it.

“It makes sure that those kids that schools can see will need help in the future get it earlier,” he says. “In a school’s budget £96 [per week] is minimal and the benefit we are having is amazing.”

The need for children to be happy elsewhere in their lives in order to be able to do well academically is well recognised and Henderson says Fox’s involvement makes this possible for some youngsters.

“My staff can start to do the work because those kids aren’t thinking ‘what am I going home to tonight?’. We are able to focus them,” he says.

When Fox is unable to deal with situations herself she will refer children and families onto other agencies. Her position enables this to happen quickly and efficiently and in most cases avoids the need for the school to formally refer families to social care.

“I’m going in at the beginning, at the first sign of a problem. We sat down in September and there was a good percentage of children who would have been referred to us [social services] if I hadn’t been in school,” says Fox.

Alongside helping parents and children Fox also provides advice to school staff on whether issues they have picked up on need to be followed up. Both Fox and Henderson agree it has given them a greater understanding of the other side.

“You have got a great insight into what social care does,” says Henderson. “I don’t think you would ever hear my staff putting social care down because there is now a relationship between us.”

When she’s at Westmorland Fox is a member of school staff and the children and families don’t know her as a social worker. This has helped her overcome the distrust some families feel towards social services.

“Social services and the local children’s centre [which is based on the same site as the school] struggle with hard-to-reach families because they don’t come in and readily access a service, but I am introduced through the school. Parents will come and pick up the kids and we use that to our advantage,” says Fox.

The scheme is proving a success; it has improved children’s attendance and behaviour, and school exclusions have been reduced to zero. It was also cited as an example of best practice in a cross government Staying Safe consultation document, which closed in October last year, on improving children and young people’s safety and has been rolled out to three other schools in the city.

Other local authorities are also looking at the idea. The Children’s Workforce Development Council has recently announced the first nine local authorities in England who are taking part in its remodelling social work pilots. These include Bath and North East Somerset which plan to develop front-line social worker roles in extended schools. It may not be long before many other local authorities follow suit.

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Amy Taylor


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