If you accidentally walked into a child protection conference at Wirral Council you might not recognise it.
Instead of a roundtable, everyone sits in a horseshoe arrangement looking at a large board on the wall that is divided into red, amber and green zones each of which is inhabited with yellow Post-It notes that represent all the risks, concerns, strengths and other factors of the case.
The tables are free of the normal wads of reports and papers and, most strikingly of all, the family at the centre of the case is engaged and participating rather than looking disempowered and bewildered with their heads down.
The board is just one of the results of Supporting Families Enhancing Futures, the bespoke model of social work developed by Wirral Council with help from Jan Horwath, the University of Sheffield’s emeritus professor of child welfare.
It’s a model focused on understanding the lived experience of children and families, explains Simone White, deputy director for children’s social care in Wirral.
“We really wanted the model to build on our understanding of what makes life better for families,” says White. “It’s a way of really identifying the concerns but also recognising the strengths that families have. It’s about where families work in partnership with us to improve outcomes rather than feeling they are having things done to them.”
The board, with its visual representation of the issues faced by the family, makes it easier for both families and professionals of all stripes to examine the issues, spot the trends and see the changes from meeting from meeting.
Risks into strengths
“We put the major key risks children face in the red area of the board, the concerns about the future in the amber area, and then – just as importantly – we put all the family’s strengths in the green area,” says White.
“We ask families how do we move these around and what surprised us was that they are quite good at not only identifying the trends but also identifying more reds than we had initially anticipated.”
For some families the board itself has become a tool in the process of change, says White: “We had one family that took pictures of their board each time because they were so proud of things moving from red to green with each review, seeing things that were risks turning into strengths because they’ve managed them so well.”
A common language
The impact of the Supporting Families Enhancing Futures model is not just restricted to child protection either. Wirral designed the model to be applied across the entire scope of local children’s services.
“The exact same model with its focus on children and families’ lived experiences can be used by health visitors, school teachers and family support workers as well as social workers,” says White.
“It works for any level of intervention and gives us is a common language right across our partners, which is really important because we all need to understand each other, especially when cases are complex.”
Better pay and conditions
The creation of its new social work model is part of a wider programme at change that Wirral Council has been undertaking with gusto since Ofsted rated it inadequate in 2016.
The changes have already seen the council pump more than £10m into children’s social care this financial year and the proposed 2018/19 budget will increase that amount to £20m.
Paul Boyce, who led the turnaround of Knowsley Council, has been brought in as the council’s new director of children’s services and improved pay and working conditions have prompted many of the council’s agency workers to now want permanent jobs at the authority.
“We’ve had 15 agency staff go permanent in the first fortnight of December alone,” says White.
Changing a generation
“I think we have a fantastic opportunity to make things different here,” says White, who joined Wirral in 2017 after 10 years as a senior inspector at Ofsted.
“We have the backing of the council to create a service that doesn’t just put sticking plasters on children’s lives but actually makes a difference.
“We know we have a long way to go but Wirral knows that for years and years it did the same things in the same way and got the same results.
“Wirral is now willing to take some of the big steps needed to change children’s lives and not just for the next few weeks or months because historically many of our children in care are children of care leavers, so if we get this right we can change a generation.”