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"Relationships are everything": A day in the life of a schools-based social worker

Social Work Today speaks to schools-based practitioner Dannie Adcock-Habib about a community social work project at the forefront of early intervention.

03/07/24

"Relationships are everything": A day in the life of a schools-based social worker

There’s no such thing as a typical day in social work – and for Dannie this is no exception.

Dannie (pictured: right) is social worker based in schools and the wider community in Grimsby through the Together for Childhood programme.

Together for Childhood is a long-term project from NSPCC which operates in a number of areas across the UK including Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Glasgow. The programme places a team – made up of social work practitioners, children’s services practitioners, managers, and research and evaluation professionals – to be embedded in the community to strengthen and build relationships with partner organisations to help prevent abuse and provide support tailored to each location’s needs.

The key to this, Dannie says, is trust.

“Relationships are everything. Relationships are the basis of everything that we build on. So when we think about co-production, relationships are the absolute base of that.”

“It feels so much like you’re part of the school,” Dannie adds. “The vibe is so welcoming. Everyone wants to chat to you and the kids all want to stop you in the corridor.”

Building those trusting relationships takes time, however. Dannie says there has been a marked change in how the team has been viewed since the project started in 2019.

“There was definitely a level of wariness as to what we were coming in to do. But we weren’t sure either, and that gave us a really good baseline to build on because what we could do was create it together.

“That’s why it’s so individual for each school because it’s based on what the school needed and what they already had in place. It wasn’t about what we can do differently, it was about what we can add value to with what they’re already doing.”

Front-line social workers can often get a mixed reception from school staff, but having a social worker on-hand in the school for teachers changes this dynamic.

“Obviously caseloads are different, contact is different; whereas we are there. So if it’s something that maybe they’re not sure if they would have made a phone call about, it’s maybe just like ‘oh, you’re in school, can I just have a quick chat with you about something that I’ve noticed.’

“It kind of frees up that space, rather than having to make those phone calls and wait for responses. It’s having a conversation there and then as things come up.”

The long-term community work also pays dividends for parents at the school gate. Dannie says parents are sometimes a little bit shocked when she lets them know that she is a social worker: “There is sometimes a view around how social workers are received from families, but by being able to say that [you are a social worker] kind of brings that barrier down for all of us because they’ve been able to get to know you in a different capacity.”

“You’re there at the gate, you’re there when there’s a problem that arises. They’re not having to wait for responses or be scared when someone gets involved because you’re actually already there.

“When they can just approach you in a way where you’re already there, rather than have to make a specific contact, that maybe feels a little bit less intense.”

In recorded follow-up interviews with the team after their involvement with the Together for Childhood programme, parents were happy to share how it had helped them. “The outcome of it was massive,” one parent said. “I stopped feeling so much of a failure. You were supportive, I was able to come to you and talk to you at the school gate, especially if we’d had a bad morning. It was great to see you on that specific day. I don’t know what I would have done at that time, I was a wreck.”

“You’re going out with your resources that you’ve got, finding who can help us with what we’re going through and then helping us follow the path so that we can get what we need,” another said.

The Together for Childhood teams are given freedom to develop the support they provide based on the conversations they have with staff, parents and their children in the community.

“We can go off and use our own autonomy, use our own experience but use what’s already out there in the community and in the team to be like: ‘oh does anyone know anything about this? Can I develop anything?’”

One example of this is Safer Sixes, an offering developed alongside Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) to a group of eight Year Sixes in one school. This was subsequently expanded to the full year group, then adapted to meet the needs of other schools in the locality.

“There was a group of young people that were having issues in the community after school. There were concerns about antisocial behaviour, PCSOs were starting to recognise these kids in the community. So school were like: ‘Is there anything that we can develop?’”

“We linked PCSOs with the school to think about what exactly they felt needed to be delivered and how we could work together to deliver it. Having the presence of the PCSOs that knew the kids, kind of gives them a person of safety that they’re going to see consistently.

“They come with their expertise of being a PCSO, and we come from the social work angle. We cover things like healthy relationships, healthy friendships, peer pressure and CCE [Chid Criminal Exploitation] – all that kind of thing.”

“There are six sessions but these can be adapted and changed, so if we’ve got a group of children that need something more tailored to them, the sessions can change.

“They were given a space to just explore how they were feeling. It wasn’t a ‘you guys are doing these behaviours and we’re bringing you in to sort that out’. It was kind of just understanding where they were at, what was going on for them, talking about what they could be doing instead and how they could support one another.

“I think just affording them that space to do those activities really encourage that supportive behaviour.”

A ‘typical day’ might start with a parent drop-in – an hour set aside for parents to come and have a chat about any struggles they might have had that morning and talk about what support is available to them with this.

This might be followed by a group session with children in the school. One such group the team currently runs is a therapeutic session with young people who have all experienced some level of domestic abuse at home or parents separating.

At lunchtime, the team might be leading the ‘Calm Club’ – an offering aimed at a different age group each week that helps children with their regulation through mindfulness and breathing activities.

“It’s a bit of a drop-in, so it can be any children that day who may be struggling to regulate – whether that’s levels of anxiety, whether that’s feeling angry or frustrated, or just generally something that they need support with,” Dannie says.

The afternoon might be spent delivering assemblies to classes around ‘pants’, an initiative adapted to each age group, talking to children about how to keep themselves safe and understanding their body.

The team delivered a session to an audience of social workers at the recent BASW UK conference in Edinburgh detailing the philosophy behind the project and some of the work they are doing. Social workers who have been practicing for more than 40 years commented how the programme reminded them of the style of community social work and early intervention that successive governments have diverted resources away from.

The landmark Independent Review of Children’s Social Care published its final report more than two years ago, calling for a ‘fundamental reset’ of the system. One of its key recommendations was a shift towards early help and intervention with struggling families by creating a new ‘Family Help’ service. The Review estimated such a service would cost roughly £2 billion to set up, would be based in trusted community settings like schools to provide support to families struggling with problems like domestic abuse and poor mental health – similar to the Together for Childhood project.

Last year, the Government pledged £200m to make the improvements, including trialling targeted early help schemes. However, many in the sector voiced their concerns at that time that the amount pledged was less than a tenth of that suggested in the Review and were critical of the ‘painfully slow’ progress made by the Government.

An NSPCC spokesperson said that whoever forms the next Government “must go further and faster” to achieve the aims proposed in Josh MacAlister’s Review, which ultimately would prevent families from reaching crisis point.

“Because it is embedded in the community and tailored to each location, Together for Childhood can help families, children and young people not only to recognise and seek support for abuse and neglect, but to have confidence in practitioners and organisations which may previously have been within the community.

“Investing in early intervention, family help services and safer, happier starts can help prevent families reaching crisis point.”

The relationship of social issues like poverty and poor housing with social work – and the benefit of intervening early when problems arise – are understood all too well by social workers in the community like Dannie.

She tells me about a chance conversation with a parent in the playground when she noticed that the child had a dressing gown on when they arrived in the morning. Dannie heard how the parent’s boiler had broken that morning, and asked if they wanted to chat about it. From this conversation, the parent revealed issues with their landlord and poor housing, plus struggles to access benefits. Because of that seemingly innocuous conversation, Dannie was able to direct the parent to support they needed – and that they didn’t realise was available to them.

“A boiler breaking might not be the biggest crisis on earth, but then the stresses of that and the knock-on of that [can lead to] calls into social services and crisis coming about.

“Being in that community and being embedded is what people need: making it non-threatening, making people feel that they can approach us with anything that’s come up.”

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