In August, April Bald stepped out of Barking train station not knowing what to expect. She left South Africa to continue her children’s social work career in London in 1991 but she’d never been to Barking and Dagenham. London’s like that, she says. You can live there for years and still have new places to discover.
April came to Barking in search of change. For 18 years she’d been at Southwark and as much as she enjoyed working there, she felt it was time for change. But she didn’t want to end up at any London borough.
“I didn’t just want to go anywhere,” she says. “It had to be the right authority – somewhere that could match the great experiences Southwark offered but be different and even better.”
Social work grapevine
So she kept her ear to the ground – listening out for recommendations of what borough might be a good move and one name kept cropping up: Barking and Dagenham.
“Barking and Dagenham would pop up in conversations,” she recalls. “I kept hearing positive stories and people saying it’s a nice place to work that feels very real and is really friendly. I never heard anyone say anything negative.”
So when she saw an opening for a director of operations for children’s care and support at Barking and Dagenham, April applied. Soon after she found herself in Barking Town for the first time heading to her initial interview.
“I got off that train and walked through the high street,” she recalls. “It was market day and I loved the feel of it. The atmosphere cut through my nervousness about the interview. I remember thinking: ‘I like this; it has a proper community feel.'”
By the time of her interview, April had already done her homework on the east London borough and one thing in particular had grabbed her interest.
“I was struck by the borough’s one council vision for community cohesion and empowerment,” she says. “I’ve been in safeguarding my entire career and what we are seeing today is that safeguarding is not only about abuse children and young people are experiencing from within their families, but the risk from within their peer groups and community settings.
“This challenge has meant professionals are having to think wider than ‘traditional safeguarding’ approaches, working with wider council and voluntary sector partners and the community. So Barking and Dagenham’s vision for its children, families and communities as a whole – chimed with me.”
Another appeal was Ofsted’s latest focused visit to the borough. Not only did it highlight the strong progress Barking and Dagenham’s made since its 2014 Ofsted, it also reflected a borough that was determined to improve and achieve better outcomes for its children and families.
As Ofsted’s inspectors put it: “Staff report that they enjoy working in Barking and Dagenham children’s services as there is a supportive culture, open access to management advice and appropriate training available to them.”
Now in post, April is keen to build on the borough’s supportive culture.
“Social workers are the heart of the service,” she says. “We need to make the same promises to them that we do for our children and young people, i.e. every social worker is valued, supported and challenged so that they develop the ambition, skills and resilience to succeed in the profession.
“Every social worker should know that they are a part of, and have a responsibility to contribute to building a strong, empowered and cohesive workforce. Getting it right for the staff will mean we have staff who join and stay. Reducing turnover of social workers is a key priority – we owe this to our children and families.”
“The borough’s got an amazing learning and development package and incredible financial incentives. It’s a borough that puts its money where its mouth is because it wants the right staff and wants them to stay. Money’s not the be all and end all but we know it’s expensive to live in London.”
‘I believe in social work’
April’s belief in the benefits of valuing social workers is reflected in her management style. “My mantra is that you need to be kind to yourselves and each other,” she says.
“Social work is such a tough job. We get a lot of pressures from all over so it’s important to create an atmosphere where there is trust and staff feel appreciated and cared for.”
Like many London boroughs Barking and Dagenham has its challenges and complexities but it’s these kind of challenges that April has always sought out: “I love the job. I always have. If you ask me what I am, at the end of the day I’m a social worker. I believe in the profession and that it has an incredibly important role to play in society.”