Social work’s new role model

The creation of a new social worker position is helping teachers who are worried about a child but unsure if full referral is needed writes Rachel Williams

When part of the ceiling collapsed in Emma’s council house in St Werburghs, Bristol, it felt like the final straw for the single mother in her early 20s. She was already worried about the poor condition of her home, as she struggled to get repairs done via the council, and was experiencing depression and having difficulty sleeping.

When her six-year-old daughter started being late for school or not turning up at all, teachers were concerned. It was not a situation that required a full referral to children’s services, but they sensed something was wrong, so they called Michael Earle.

Earle, a social worker based in Bristol, has for 18 months been piloting a new role in which he works directly with schools in the east and centre of the city, but without holding any individual casework. Teaching staff at 19 schools – all primaries and nurseries bar one secondary and one pupil referral unit – can call on him whenever they have a concern about a child but are unsure if it warrants a full referral to children’s services. If it does, he will tell them, but if it does not, as is more often the case, he will get them help from an agency that can deal with their specific needs – leaving him free to work with more families.

For Earle, the key thing is that he can catch problems early. “It might be something really small, but if it were to develop unchecked it could turn into something major, and get to crisis point,” he says.

In Emma’s case, Earle helped her to get support from the housing charity Shelter, which contacted the council and helped solve her housing problems.

An assessment of the Bristol project found that over six months, Earle was involved with families 37 times. On seven occasions his work was judged to have circumvented a call to the area assessment team, and on 12 it ensured or assisted the safeguarding of a child. In one instance, his intervention prevented a possible emergency placement for a child.

Given that a single case conference costs £570 in professional time, according to independent estimates, let alone any follow-up reviews, paperwork and action needed, Bristol city council believes that the post is saving money. As a result, it plans to roll out the scheme to the rest of the city in the autumn.

Anne Farmer, area social work manager, says headteachers, keen to nip problems in the bud but concerned about the impact of making full referrals both on families and children’s services, have welcomed the post wholeheartedly.

“They can worry that they’re referring something [to children’s services] too quickly and may lose the family’s co-operation, which is really important,” she says. “Another worry is that are they unnecessarily blocking social work time.”

The pilot has also helped schools with concerns about hard to reach parents, as Earle has the time to make strenuous efforts to get in touch with them – that might mean going round to their house every day until he finds someone in.

Families are much more open and co-operative than they would be to a case-holding social worker or someone intervening at a later stage, he says. “The interaction has been very different,” Earle says. “They’re a lot more accepting of this role. People say I have more time to listen. They appreciate getting the time to sit down and talk.

“They’re sometimes short pieces of work that I do, but they’re very effective.”