Better Support for Families

Last night was my second committee of the week: Children, Education and Skills. There were some really substantive issues on the agenda, which can be viewed here.

Each item on the agenda could have been a meeting in its own right. There was a really detailed presentation by our Director of Public Health highlighting health inequalities being faced by children and young people in North Tyneside, followed by discussion about what can be done to improve. There was a Serious Case Review, into a sexual abuse case, which was pretty harrowing, as SCR’s always are. I was impressed by the tenacity of fellow councillors, especially Cllr Oliver, in ensuring that when senior managers say “lessons have been learned” that they really have, and that practices have changed. We also had a relatively short but important debate about what can be done to reduce the cost of school uniforms, so that local parents are not getting fleeced. My main contribution to this debate was to stress that Pupil Premium money (extra budget schools receive to support disadvantaged pupils) really must be used for educational interventions, not to subsidise the cost of expensive uniforms. Drive down the cost of uniforms, drive up the investment in education!

The agenda item that I found most interesting of all was a very detailed report we received into the way social work teams dealt with at-risk families during Covid. You can read it from p.17 onwards in the meeting’s public documents pack.

Entitled “What helps and what hinders in building safety for children using naturally connected networks” the reports authors, including Prof. Eileen Munro, are highly influential in Child Protection circles. They had studied North Tyneside alongside three other councils and I was keen to hear what they had to say.

What was both fascinating a startling to me was how an absolutely common sense idea can be veiwed by Child Protection professionals as somehow revolutionary. To quote from the first page of the report:

“the naturally connected networks around children — such as extended family members, neighbours and other community members — are a potentially valuable resource for building safety by supporting parents and children and noticing if a child is being harmed.”

Who wudda thunk it?!

During my career I’ve worked with families on the edge of the care system, from a voluntary sector position. It has sometimes been all too evident that social work teams, when assessing risk, overstate the mitigating impact of the ‘professionals’ involved in a case, and understate the role of the many other people who may be able to make a difference. Reading this report I was pleased to see that ‘mapping’ exercises are now being used more frequently to identify who the people are (the ‘naturally connected networks’) that can and want to help. Involving these people as important partners with the safety plan, not as bit-part players, can make all the difference.

It’s good to see that our local Children’s Services team are continuing to innovate, learn and develop their practice. They do an incredibly important and challenging job that they are rarely thanked for. I trust that as this report describes, they are coming to see that keeping children safe isn’t a job they need to do alone, there are networks of ordinary people within our communities who also have a valuable part to play too.

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