Natalie Abraham reflects on C.Co’s breakfast briefing:-

“I was delighted to host the latest of our breakfast briefings with three eminent speakers, who shared and discussed their experiences of the impact of the pandemic on children and young people’s services.

Working in partnership

First to join us was Jenny Turnross, Director of Practice at Birmingham Children’s Trust. Jenny spoke about the Trust’s response to Covid, and how it worked to lay the foundations for early intervention.

With over 2000 staff, including 800 social workers, Birmingham City Council is the largest local authority in Europe. The Council’s challenge was to achieve consistency of practice across the area. Jenny talked about what early help and prevention really means and what the pandemic has meant for the city, where so many families have been affected.

At Birmingham’s Children’s Trust, they quickly pulled a partnership together with 42 people in weekly meetings to offer robust early help and support. The Trust had been established as part of an improvement plan, after Council services were rated as ‘inadequate’, so this work has paved the way for strong relationships for the future. 23 partners are continuing to provide ongoing services.

The partnership assessed the support that families needed. With 42% of residents living in poverty, they needed financial help and practical support. Many had been furloughed or were struggling with home schooling. The partnership developed personal grant schemes across 10 localities and connected community groups with food banks and real practical assistance.

Making conversations count

The Trust made every contact count by having conversations to understand what people really needed.  50 early help workers were employed to have those conversations. The Trust built a team around each of the 500 schools to build relationships through virtual teams, including social care, police, health and family support. A handbook, including details of 5,000 voluntary services, has been compiled. I was particularly impressed to hear about the pathways put in place for 11 to 25 year olds, to signpost them to online mental health services. Support was also set up for victims of domestic abuse to help them to use a keyword for when they needed help.  3,000 homeless families were placed in temporary accommodation in four-star hotels with a team to support them, including access to libraries, baby clinics, early help and family support workers. It is interesting to note that had it not been for the pandemic, these people would not have been found and helped.

Early support is key

The Trust used an all-encompassing approach to raise awareness and understanding in schools. It had been assumed that teachers understood the threshold for intervention for early help; they needed to understand that it was actually not about waiting for a crisis involving child protection plans but putting early support in place with the voluntary sector. This work meant that many children did not have to wait until a crisis occurred.  It was striking to see that the Trust had not been punitive in its actions but simply added strength through working in partnership. Covid has demonstrated not only strengthened communities but also that leaders have to be brave in their approach to create a truly joined up, holistic, family-centred outcome. The Trust has now completed a survey with four thousand families to gather insight to take them to the next steps.

Safeguarding children with compassion

The next speaker, Paul Boyce OBE, talked about how Covid has lifted the veil on the lived experience of many children and young people and what this means for local government. He was keen to emphasise that safeguarding children with compassion is a corporate responsibility, not purely a children’s services responsibility.

Paul explained that, in Wirral, due to Covid, the need to agitate the system to create a place-based approach and enable children to reach their full potential, provided an understanding of the true diversity of outcomes across Wirral. This is an area of both great wealth and also huge poverty. The system quickly created community capacity to target the people most in need, such as those suffering from domestic abuse. It was recognised that schools are a reference point in times of crisis and the schools were kept open.

By working differently with the voluntary sector and public health services, schools were able to identify vulnerable children and families through proactive intervention. By knocking on doors, they were able to find out what was really going on in homes. We know that food poverty impacts both family well-being and learning, so food was given out, rather than vouchers, to enable conversations to take place.

Tackling child poverty

While the NHS has rightly been hailed as the heroes through the pandemic, there are others too who have worked with local people to keep them out of trouble. Covid has given us the ability to understand and target the most vulnerable. Paul felt that the pandemic has highlighted that not enough has been done in the past to target child poverty and childhood. He stressed that we should not aim to go back to the ‘normal’ of pre-pandemic child poverty but should deal with the inequality that already existed and has been exacerbated by the virus. This is truly impressive work and Paul is well deserving of his OBE for his work with the children of Wirral.

C.Co’s Non-Executive Director, Donna Hall OBE, gave her reflections on the Marmot Review into health inequalities, which proposes an evidence-based strategy to address the social determinants of health; the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age and which can lead to health inequalities. She talked about how to invent a Marmot strategy in each locality, based on the need to have places with good integrated services.

Investing in prevention

Children’s services models already needed attention and the pandemic response required services to be designed around each child and person. We required bold and imaginative people to let go and try something different. Children are at the forefront of change and Donna asked, ‘how do we change commissioning practices in health, police and education to cause a shift and maintain the momentum?’ What is clear is that we need to serve the public and not organisational needs. This has been difficult when resources and policies are limited, against a backdrop of needing to continue to deliver services. A ‘can do’ attitude was needed collectively across all organisations to share priorities and a collective journey. Donna suggested that we need to see place-based working and not work in ‘silos’. More money should be invested in prevention; if we are waiting for social worker intervention, we are already too late.”

Natalie Abraham, Chief Operating Officer, C.Co

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