A few weeks ago, children’s social worker Janny received a letter from a father she had been supporting who had experienced domestic abuse. He wanted to thank her and let her know he and his family were moving into a new home – due to her support.
The letter read: “It’s so overwhelming to know that Newham has such genuine professionals with history and lived experiences. For years I’ve cried, begged for help and there was always a brick wall, and then two genuine empathetic professionals come along at once. My mood is stabilising, and I have real hope once again – thanks ever so much for everything you’re doing, it seems thankless, but I have nothing to offer in return except my prayers.”
His letter was a reminder of how challenging his circumstances had been.
Circles of Support
The first day Janny met Sameer*, he broke down in tears. He had been mentally and physically abused by his wife and had reached breaking point.
Janny spent three hours listening to him talk about his problems and let him express the emotions that he had built up over time.
Janny, who works in Newham’s assessment team, realised that this family needed multidisciplinary support. She adopted ‘Newham Circles of Support’ – the authority’s relationship-based model of practice, which uses the anchors of coproduction, compassion, clarity, curiosity, community and confidence to listen to and support the family.
Janny also credits the training from Newham’s Social Care Academy as being key to her finding ways to support Sameer and his family.
Circles of Support and Newham’s Social Care Academy are two of several areas in the borough’s improvement journey that Ofsted highlighted in its latest inspection report. Ofsted credited leaders, managers and staff for working “unstintingly to drive change” and adds that the model “has greatly strengthened practice and created a positive culture of learning and development”.
Janny’s approach to learning highlights this positive culture of learning and development.
She says: “We have a family therapist, and I adopted her methods. So, rather than going in with our concerns, I took that therapeutic approach. One thing she talks about is providing them with a safe platform, so I adopted that.
“At the end of the three hours between the three of us, we had identified that mum was overwhelmed because she had a baby and two children, is a carer for her husband, who has invisible disabilities, [and there was] all this emotional and psychological abuse mum was experiencing from his side of the family. She was isolated in the UK, and she had her own mental health issues because she had recently had two miscarriages which she hadn’t processed.”
Janny persuaded the parents to agree to talking therapies, parenting classes, emotional support for the children in school and, most significantly, to move out away from Sameer’s parents, who were creating a toxic environment in the home. She also referred him to occupational health so he could get help with his disabilities.
Sameer’s family is one example of the complex, multi-layered issues that social workers come across in a diverse borough like Newham. The emphasis on systemic training and using the Circles of Support framework has been integral in not only supporting families but also practitioners.
The key to Janny’s training was not being judgmental.
“It’s not about blame, it’s about accountability,” says Janny. “I explored mum’s background – she had also seen and experienced abuse growing up. I explained that her behaviour was not acceptable, whatever the situation you cannot use it as an excuse to beat your husband. It’s about changing the culture.”
From inadequate to outstanding
That change in culture has come from the top and Newham’s efforts to make impactful change at a senior leadership level has contributed to its overall effectiveness being judged as ‘good’, and leadership as ‘outstanding’, by Ofsted for the first time.
As one of the poorest boroughs in London, Newham’s high levels of deprivation leads to a range of challenges.
So how did Newham do it?
“One of the things I did early on was make a significant investment in the support and professional development of social workers,” says Tim Aldridge, director of children’s services, who was brought in, in 2019, specifically to help improve the service. “We formed the Social Care Academy and part of that was appointing a director of clinical practice and, underneath him, a team of family therapists to offer a really rich training programme.”
All social workers get five days of systemic training and can apply for further training, such as a master’s degree, if they wish to.
Stable and visible senior leadership has meant that advice and support can be sought on an ad-hoc basis, as well as in regular, scheduled case discussions and supervision.
But Tim is not complacent. “We were overjoyed, and it gave everyone a massive lift, but we can’t afford to stand still. The moment you stop thinking, you go backwards.”
According to Newham, it is the only local authority to have created a director of clinical practice role, which Dave Tapsell, a social worker and psychotherapist, holds.
“We don’t want to be an authority that assesses, monitors and refers; we want to be an authority that is about it engaging, supporting and changing – for our practitioners alongside our community,” says Dave.
“We think people came to social work to actually enjoy the job and think that they are doing something of value and that’s something we are trying to bring back into the profession,” he says.
‘I never feel alone’
This is true for practitioners like Brenda, a senior social worker in the Interventions service. She started her career at Newham but left for a year in 2018, to work at another local authority.
She believes things have improved hugely since she first started her career at the borough.
“What brought me back to Newham was the Circles of Support,” she says. “It was the peer support – the way colleagues support each other in absolutely everything. I’ve never felt a time where I’m all by myself in terms of cases.
“I would say everything is being managed better starting from our front door, the multi-agency safeguarding hub. So you find that cases are being filtered better and cases are being stepped up or stepped down better. My caseload is manageable, it used to be 25-30, but now we’ve brought it down to 15.”
‘Our voices are heard’
Janny agrees. She has been with Newham for six years and since she came back from maternity leave in 2020, she feels that so much of her work has been appreciated, not just by her team manager but by senior management too.
“I feel like, as social workers, our voices have been listened to,” she says. “When we have said about workloads and needing bigger teams, those things have been implemented and the team structure changed. We have more consultations, not just with team managers but service managers; directors are getting involved and really taking on board what we’re saying.
“As frontline workers, our views and experiences matter and, with those changes being implemented, it really helps staff morale.”
Newham is now planning to become a centre of excellence through its Social Care Academy and, given the progress it has made over the last few years, practitioners are excited to be part of the journey.
Janny says: “I’m always very conscious of the power I hold and when I walk in through that door, I hand that power over to my families.
“I think that’s how I manage to get a lot of families who are resistant to working with social workers to, thankfully, engage with me. I don’t think I’ll ever leave Newham, they’ve supported me so much.”
*name changed for confidentiality
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