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Telford & Wrekin Council

Frontline view

Progression and learning in a culture of belonging

Louise Spragg, Telford & Wrekin
Louise Spragg, principal social worker, Telford & Wrekin

Social workers at Telford & Wrekin explain how the council’s investment in people enables them to be the best they can be 

“There’s always been investment in making sure my career develops here and the training to make sure you reach your next steps,” says Debra Thomas, team manager at Telford & Wrekin Council’s children at risk through exploitation (CATE) team.

A testament to the council’s grow-your-own approach to staff development, Debra started at Telford & Wrekin in 2007 as a social worker in a child protection team. She rose to senior social worker before joining the family connect team in 2014 – to develop senior experience from a multi-agency working perspective – and has been in CATE since 2016.

Debra is one of many at Telford & Wrekin Council to experience the investment in people and practice delivery that has been central to its success as an authority rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted in March 2020. On that visit, inspectors found staff were valued as “the most precious resource for vulnerable children and families”.

Team members talk extensively about their years of successful development and progression in their time here. Training and learning opportunities are continuous and evolving – borne out of a watchful eye on the outside world and emerging issues. Progression concentrates on individual aspirations to specialise, diversify or move through the ranks. The council introduced a social work progression framework in 2019 after consultation with staff, in recognition of nurturing the professional journey of social workers throughout their career.

And far from resting on the laurels of its ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating, Telford & Wrekin Council has rolled out new practice models during the pandemic to recognise the ever-changing challenges facing children and families – as well as the longer-term impacts of Covid-19 – and, says principal social worker Louise Spragg “that we need to continually take stock, review and strengthen our practice”.

Individual approaches to development

Claire Read, senior social worker in the family safeguarding team, did her assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) at the council five years ago. She has been able to both progress by developing in the areas that particularly interest her and apply those skills directly to her work.

“When you’re in supervision with your team manager, you’re asked if there are any specific areas you want to develop. Although we’re versatile in our skills, one of my interests was one around domestic violence and abuse. I was put on that training, and I was able to put those skills to use working with parents.”

An ever-changing but ample and ‘always-on’ training programme is linked to national reviews with a firm eye on current and emerging issues. “People tend to prioritise their training because it’s really encouraged. It’s about making sure our training programme reflects national issues. Even if these haven’t become apparent in our local area yet, they will. It’s about getting on top of that and recognising what we can learn from others,” says Louise.

Telford & Wrekin Council’s recent annual practice week, for example, focused on inclusivity and relational working, and included many speakers from lived-experience backgrounds. The council has continued plans to embed co-production into our practice with families that we work alongside.

Louise says: “We really value the voice of lived and learnt experience in Telford & Wrekin, for them to come together and have an exchange with us so we gain greater understanding about their experiences and are open to their asking us where decisions could be made differently, to really embed that learning.”

Senior social worker Sophie Farley can’t speak highly enough of the value. “It’s so critical and a reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing and how we can do it in an empathic, curious way. That’s what is key about being a social worker here, we want to have a positive regard for those we work with. We don’t want to lose that curiosity.”

Sophie says the council has invested in her career since she came as a student on the fast-track Frontline programme in 2017. She started in the child protection team (now family safeguarding team) before moving into the assessment team to “develop skills in assessment and duty work” but returned to family safeguarding this July.

She appreciates the individual investment in her personal development. “It’s about managers giving you opportunities to explore and learn. That helped me build up my confidence and skills – managers recognising that I had the potential to be a really good social worker and giving me those opportunities to work with those families with really complex issues.”

Staying current, not staying still

A highlight of Debra’s time at Telford & Wrekin Council is the commitment to investment in the CATE team, which included widening the remit and employing staff so the team could respond to criminal exploitation “in the way we’ve responded to child sexual exploitation”.

“We respond to the emerging themes that families and young people face. It allows you that creativity as you work and to have some imagination about how you develop services – and it doesn’t take you years to do that.”

This is clear in the council’s response to its ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating. Ofsted highlighted many areas of high-quality social work practice but, rather than staying still, Telford & Wrekin Council forged ahead with the investment and roll-out of the family safeguarding model in June this year and the Mockingbird fostering programme.

“The family safeguarding model gives the potential to allow us to deliver even better services to the families we support. It’s about always looking forward,” Sophie says.

Louise highlights the ‘trio of vulnerabilities’ facing multi-agency teams under the family safeguarding model – domestic abuse, mental health and substance misuse – as those that Covid has particularly shone a light upon, given rising national awareness and a recognition of how hidden some of these vulnerabilities can be.

“Some of the rationale was not wanting to stand still and wanting to continue to improve our practice but also acknowledging that Covid is likely to impact on those vulnerabilities even more so, so it was even more important to proceed with that than to wait.”

The council is already repeating training using live examples of cases and reflective discussion less than five months after the model was launched, says Claire. “We’re reflecting on how we can improve. That’s what I really love about Telford & Wrekin – the hearing of our voices and our families’ voices.”

The Mockingbird programme which delivers foster care using a constellation approach, whereby a carer is part of a ‘group’ of carers that a young person develops a relationship with. It means that, much like an extended family, a young person can stay with a support carer at intervals and groups within the constellation can spend time together as a collective.

“It’s a family support system around the young person and the foster carers,” says Louise. “When we look at placing children and matching children, it gives you more options to know you can place with carers who are supported by a proven model which is reflective of an extended family approach to fostering, ensuring that both the carer and the young person has a network around them for support guidance and nurture.”

Open door

Social workers at Telford & Wrekin Council particularly value the longstanding open-door policy of senior leaders. “A lot of the senior leaders have worked at Telford & Wrekin for a long time and as people have moved up, they’ve kept that culture of open door and open conversations. It is a small authority and it’s quite streamlined in its approach,” says Debra.

The council’s executive director Jo Britton chairs the staff consultation group alongside Louise, and it’s clear that she, alongside all senior leaders, has visible lines of communication with all staff. As well as offering an open-door culture of support, leaders are quick to approach as well as be approached, with regular coffee catch-ups and check-ins on staff.

But, says Sophie, as well as support in times of challenge or demand, they are also quick to communicate success. “They make a real effort to recognise good work and appreciate the practice that we’re doing.”

Ofsted highlighted that ‘senior leaders have a clear and transformative vision for services to sustainably improve the lives of vulnerable children and their families in Telford and Wrekin. Members and senior officers work together successfully to deliver this ambitious agenda to improve services.’

“Our leadership team is visible not just because of our size but because they really want to have direct contact with the people doing the work. They model our learning culture,” adds Louise.

She herself is proof of the longevity of the council’s grow-your-own approach and professes to having “grown up here in terms of my professional career”. She started at the council as a social work assistant in 2005, rising through the ranks until a two-year departure elsewhere led her back to Telford & Wrekin Council in her current role a year ago.

Welcoming new perspectives

“We do have a fantastic bunch of people in the local authority across the board,” says Claire. “I just feel like everybody’s really here for the right reasons and it’s for the families and children.”

And this friendly, welcoming team values new perspectives from new team members. The council has seen agency workers who have become permanent team members, and arrivals from larger local authorities who have been able to contribute to their colleagues’ learning. “People tend to stay, not just because of the opportunities but because of the culture,” says Louise.

“We’re committed to continue to develop our knowledge and skills and we welcome people from different backgrounds with different experiences because they can really bring that knowledge in to us and help develop our services further.”

Sophie adds: “We’re very much all about developing skills of staff. Whether that means moving around or working in the same team for five years, you’ll be supported in making those choices.”

Working at Telford & Wrekin Council

Equal opportunities: Telford & Wrekin council has a commitment to promoting inclusivity within its work force at all levels. The council welcomes applications from people of all backgrounds regardless of age, disability, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, religious or spiritual belief, those with caring responsibilities, those experiencing menopause, or those within the Armed Forces community. Existing staff are supported to apply for the Black and Asian Leadership Initiative through The Staff College.

Learning and development: Access to courses, e-learning, professional qualifications, management and leadership programme and coaching and mentoring.

Health and wellbeing: Free employee assistance programme, confidential counselling, wellbeing activity programmes and physiotherapy.

Annual leave: 23 days rising to 28 days after five years’ continuous local government service, then to 31 days after 10 years’ service.

Pension scheme: Automatic access to Local Government Pension Scheme.

Flexible working: Applications can be made for options including hybrid working, part-time hours, compressed hours or term-time working.

Extras: Car lease schemes, free parking, health care schemes and discounts on products and services.

Are you an experienced social worker looking to invest in your career or a new challenge? If so, register for Telford & Wrekin’s children’s social worker CPD and virtual recruitment event here.