Embedding language workers in children’s social care

Language workers embedded in children's teams have improved engagement with Bangladeshi and Pakistani families in Oldham, reports Louise Hunt

Language workers embedded in children’s teams have improved engagement with Bangladeshi and Pakistani families in Oldham, reports Louise Hunt

(Pictured: Malek Ahmed, a language worker on Oldham’s children’s services team)

Project details

Project name: Oldham Council embedded language workers in children’s services teams.

Aims and objectives: To provide in-house interpretation with an understanding of social work to ensure effective communication between the practitioners and families from Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.

Cost per language worker: £18,500-£21,500 a year.

Timescale: The children’s services team has employed language workers for five years.

The presence of a language barrier can be a key challenge to working in multi-cultural areas. Failure to address this can lead to confusion among families about why social workers have become involved in their lives in the first place, let alone help them understand the plans put in place for them.

Five years ago, Oldham’s children’s services started directly employing language workers to engage hard-to-reach families. They liaise predominantly with the duty teams, although their scope has expanded to support all teams, including those delivering targeted family support interventions. There are two language workers, one with the Bangladeshi community, the other with the Pakistani community.

“Given Oldham’s mixed population, we often need an interpreter,” says Kim Scragg, head of service at Oldham Council. “But it’s costly and, because they don’t have a social work knowledge, you are never clear whether the interpretation is what is meant by the social worker or a dictionary definition.”

An example is the term “accommodation”, which, Scragg says, one interpreter had defined literally as “we are offering a flat”, rather than translating the social worker’s explanation of the local authority’s duties to accommodate.

“We need to know that we have asked the right questions,” Scragg says. “If you get it wrong and that child goes back to an unsafe environment, or if we put them into care on the basis that the parents have not understood what was asked, that is wrong. With trained language workers at least we know we have done the best to make a fair assessment.”

Although the language workers were not recruited with formal social work training, they have now undertaken in-house training and, operating alongside qualified practitioners on assessments, have built an understanding of what the profession does. For Oldham, it was more important to recruit workers with the right qualities than the right skills.

Joint visits

“They had the knowledge of what would and wouldn’t work in their communities,” Scragg says. “Going out on joint visits with social workers soon helped to give them an understanding of the work. It’s more important to ensure you have someone who knows the area, is presentable to the communities and has good interpersonal skills.”

As well-regarded members of the communities they work with, their contribution to the children’s services team goes beyond interpretation. “The other part of their role is getting us over the doorstep,” Scragg says. “Having a language worker from that community has allowed many doors to open voluntarily because they are a trusted face.”

She recounts a case of a mother whose daughter was not accessing any of the universal services. “We had left a card with her, but it turned out the mother couldn’t read or understand English. The language worker came back to the house with us and was able to find out why she hadn’t accessed the services and helped her do so.”

By undertaking joint visits, the language workers can also discern risk factors that could have been missed. “In one instance, they saw that a little girl was dressed differently from the rest of the family,” Scragg says. “The language worker said her clothes were of poor quality which suggested she was being neglected. We would have missed that coming from a white British culture.”

The language workers also help with supervised contact. “We don’t know if what they are saying could be something that is distressing to the child, so it is helpful to have someone to undertake supervised contact on a regular basis and make sure the parents understand why they are being supervised,” Scragg says. “You can’t expect an interpreter to be a supervisor, but the language worker is fully trained in what to look for when supervising contact. It is also less intrusive for families, because you couldn’t guarantee you would get the same interpreter every time. Ideally it should be someone they have built some relationship with, and this also frees up social workers on the team to do other duties.”


Compared with the cost of hiring freelance interpreters, Scragg believes the presence of the embedded language specialists has been cost-effective. “It’s about speed of access,” she says. “They are always available for advice on cultural issues to help with assessments. And if there are no language issues, they are also trained to do family support work, including advice on parenting techniques solving behavioural problems.”

The real value has been in their ability to break down perceived barriers and promote the contribution of social work within the community – something, as Scragg points out, that is difficult to measure.

Case study: ‘Sometimes they think i should be on their side’

“There is no such thing as a ‘normal day’. It is a varied job,” says Malek Ahmed, a language worker on Oldham’s children’s services team.

“This afternoon, for example, I am going with the duty team to see a Bangladeshi child who is in hospital with a non-accidental injury, and yesterday morning I was dealing with a case of a boy who had been left in the care of people who said they were not his family. The boy was going to be taken into care but, after establishing trust with the adults and explaining the consequences, they admitted they were relatives.

“Being able to break down barriers and reassure people by talking the same language is an advantage.

“Sometimes, if they are from Bangladesh, they think I should be on their side. I have to explain my role and the parents have to know that the way the children are raised now may not be the same as the way they were raised. I often act as a mediator between parents and children.”

One of Ahmed’s major accomplishments during his five years as a language worker has been to establish child protection policies, with the guidance of his team, across the 45 mosques and madrasas in Oldham, which is home to about 35,000 people from a Muslim background.

This month the team is launching a guide on child protection, led by Ahmed, aimed at teachers in mosques and madrasas, as well as private teachers. The booklet includes teaching tips on behaviour management, he says, explaining there can be up to 70 children in a class.

“It is important to raise safeguarding issues,” Ahmed says. “There is a belief back home that you can hit kids, and this still goes on in mosques and madrasas. We are creating awareness to prevent mistreatment. The work is going very well. I am the first point of contact for child protection referrals from the mosques and madrasas and we know that referrals are going down as a result of this work.”

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