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“I don't think people realised social work can do that…it can put families back together”

Social Work Today talks to Matt Clayton about the making of the hit new documentary KIDS and the impact it’s having on the big issues in social work.


“I don't think people realised social work can do that…it can put families back together”

KIDS, the new documentary series following young people in the care system, airs its finale tonight at 9pm on Channel 4.

The show invites the audience into the world of six care-experienced young people in Coventry to reveal the unflinching reality of how they entered care and how those experiences have shaped their journey.

TV critics and professionals working in the sector have commented on the ‘unprecedented’ access given to the crew, so Social Work Today spoke to Matt Clayton from Coventry City Council’s children’s services to find out about the making of the show and what it has meant for these young people, as well as the impact it could have for social work in the future.

On his way back from filming a live TV segment with daytime entertainment programme Packed Lunch – along with Byron and Havana, two of the young stars featured in KIDS – Matt laughs about the bizarre situation they have found themselves in: “I think, for all three of us, it’s not something you ever expect to happen, to be on live TV, so it's quite a surreal experience.”

Matt says that the young people that have had the cameras following them for the programme feel like superstars in their home city.

“I think that they've been really enjoying it and all the feedback from them has been brilliant. Everyone has been telling me that actually all the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and people have just been so proud of them for doing it.”

The cameras first came to Coventry for a one-off show called Superkids, which saw Lemn Sissay – the famous care-experienced poet – working with seven young people, to tell their stories through spoken word before performing their pieces at a theatre in Coventry. Matt said that at the time, colleagues in other local authorities cautioned against allowing the media this access.

“A lot of local authorities warned us off, being like: ‘why on earth would you do something like this? You're like, risking Coventry looking bad!’ But our view at the time was that actually, these young people's stories deserve to be heard and these voices need to be heard.”

After the success of the one-off documentary, Matt says the production company came back and said they wanted to continue working with the council as there were still more stories to tell about young people in the care system.

After a year of research, the team at Coventry and the production company worked together to decide what the series would look like.

“What we didn't want was some sort of fly-on-the-wall, follow a social worker around thing. I think that's been done.

“What we really wanted is it to be about the young people and their journeys, their experiences, and them to own the story, but also about their relationships, actually their relationships, whether that's with families, with a social worker, with a foster care, what the importance of those relationships is to them.

“We had cameras with us for the whole of last year following the different young people’s stories, working with social workers, foster carers and others.

“One of the things we didn't know when we were doing it is actually how those stories were going to end because they were happening in real time.

“It's really powerful that each of them ends up in quite a different way, but actually has a positive ending in different ways for each of the young people.”

Many have commented on the ‘unprecedented’ level of access the crew were given to young people and the day-to-day of the care system, so it is perhaps surprising to learn that the leadership at the council were on-board from the beginning.

“John [Gregg, Director of Children’s Services] has always been of the view that it's not about whether Coventry looks good or bad, it's about what's right for the children and the young people.

“If this is the right thing for them as individuals, but also in terms of actually improving stuff for young people in the care system, then that's the right thing to do.

“I think we've got quite forward thinking team.”

Matt says, however, that the series didn’t come without its complications.

“There was obviously some nervousness and we had to do quite a lot of work around risk assessments and the legal agreements and getting partners on board.

“You get 3 hours of TV – but that had two years of work behind it. Every Friday morning I was at a weekly meeting with legal, the producer and the director from the show discussing: Are there any issues? Is there anything that anyone's worried about? How we're going to solve that? During the course of the year, so many different things came up that we had to resolve.

Matt says that Paddy Wivell, the BAFTA-winning director behind the series, was clear that the documentary relied on a good working relationship based on trust. The team at Coventry obliged this due to the team’s willingness to make sure they told the story of the young people.

“There was guidance about what they could and couldn’t do and certain things that couldn't be included. Like if it put one of the young people at risk or I suppose if they said something that they actually wasn't very comfortable to say.

“We weren't allowed to control [the editing], and we didn't have any rights to pull stuff out because we didn't like it because it painted Coventry in a bad light.

Despite this, Matt says that everyone is pleased with how the series turned out.

“You can't help but admire all the young people's stories in this and you can't help but admire how articulately they tell their stories.

“I think Havana sums it up really well at the end of the last episode: it's about realising that care experience doesn’t define some people, it's part of their journey.

“They've all gone on to achieve things, overcome things and I think actually to hear that in their words, I think it's really powerful.

“I think often we can hear things from people that have been through the care system that are maybe a lot older. I think it’s really helpful to hear from people that are actually going through that transition, leaving care at this period in time.”

Matt says he hopes that policymakers and decision-makers are taking those voices on board, especially against the backdrop of the Care Review.

“I think it's massively important that decisions that are made are primarily driven by the voices of the children, young people and the families that have experience of the system.

Matt says that he hopes for three things to come out of the series: that it helps give young people a voice and helps promote change in the system; that it makes people think about working in social work and taking on some of the challenges shown in the programme; and that it will spur some people to think about fostering.

“I think when some people think about social work, they often just think about moving babies from families and maybe that’s the media image of social work.

“I think actually looking at some of the complexities in this and seeing some of the parents speaking about their experience you realise that these aren't black and white decisions.”

Episode one told the story of Xorin who was reunified with his mum Kelly after going into care.

“I don't think people realised social work can do that – that social work has worked sometimes to put families back together and help children return to their parents' care.

“I don’t think [the series] glosses over it and makes it all look like happy days. It’s quite a sympathetic portrayal that shows that these are tough jobs, dealing with really complex societal issues.”

Off the back of the series, Coventry City Council is hosting an open evening this Thursday (25th May) for people inspired by the show to begin a career in social work, or to join one of their social work teams.

“The open evening is just a great chance to come and find out about some of the roles in Coventry and see if that could be the right career move for people.”

If you’d like to learn more about becoming a social worker, or find out about joining one of the teams at ‘GOOD’-rated Coventry City Council, you can attend their open evening at the Council House on Thursday 25 May from 4pm – 8pm.

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