Creating a ‘learning culture’ within local authority Children’s Services is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face in moving towards the kind of ‘child centered’ system envisaged by Munro. Essentially, the challenge is to move from a culture in which the focus is on compliance with performance indicators and with monitoring work processes to one in which the focus is on improving performance and staff morale and the development and retention of talented and effective social work practitioners. Meeting this challenge will not be easy and will surely involve at least several years of hard work, creative leadership and a high level of commitment from senior managers and local politicians. It must also involve a number of different elements working together across the department including the use of a learning approach for Serious Case Reviews and internal management reviews, an effective training and development programme, an active strategy for transferring training, knowledge and theory into practice, reflective and analytical supervision opportunities for all staff and easy and clear opportunities for ‘front line’ staff to influence the development of policy, strategy and practice working conditions in a ‘learning loop’ with senior managers.
As a perhaps small but nevertheless significant part of this process in Enfield, on 15th November we will be hosting our very first social work conference. Over 130 members of staff are expected to attend and to hear presentations from senior managers, academics, researchers, independent trainers and – perhaps most importantly of all – from our Children in Care Council (who recently named themselves ‘Kratos’ after the son of the Greek gods Pallas and Styx – whatever else you might care to say Enfield’s looked after children services, you can’t say that we don’t get to work with interesting young people….)
The theme of the conference is ‘share, celebrate, challenge’ – sharing our time and our ideas (and a spot of lunch); celebrating the things we are doing well and those things we have improved on over the past year; and challenging ourselves to do even better by facing up to our weaknesses and reflecting on what we might do about them. Sharing and challenging are both equally important but the idea of celebrating what we have done well is perhaps less common within many Children’s Services departments. Too often, in my view, we look for problems – and rightly so in many respects – but this can at times crowd out a greater acknowledgement of what we are doing well. For example, in Enfield, in our 2013 staff survey, over 80 per cent of more than 150 respondents completely or mostly agreed that ‘the training in Enfield helps me understand and meet the needs of service users’; over 75 per cent completely or mostly agreed that ‘I work in a supportive team environment’; over 75 per cent completely or mostly agreed that ‘I can raise issues of disagreement with my manager’; and over 75 per cent completely or mostly agreed that ‘training in Enfield helps me meet my Continuing Professional Development needs’. Whilst Enfield is not without its ‘areas for improvement’, it is exactly these kinds of ‘good news’ stories that we must ensure we recognize and reflect back to the staff and even more so in these austere and difficult times.
The programme for the conference includes presentations from Professor Donald Forrester (@DonaldForr) on ‘Parental engagement and resistance: how to help people in child and family social work’; from Claudia Megele (@claudiamegele) on ‘Relationship-based social work: connecting the dots between self, theory and practice’; from Enfield’s Children in Care Council on ‘Feedback from young people and priorities for future engagement’; from Ruth Dalzell (@ruthdal) on ‘Putting analysis into assessment’’ and from Professor Brian Littlechild (@blittlechild) on ‘Working with ‘resistant’ parents’. The connection between these areas as I see it lies in the intersection between how we use our personal and communication skills (for example, when having difficult conversations with parents and carers) and how we draw a line between – or a circle around – these (kinds of) encounters and our development of analytical and theoretically informed assessments and interventions.
Finally, I particularly want to highlight the contribution from our Children in Care Council. I am convinced that hearing directly from the children we work for – not only at this conference but routinely, habitually, every single working day – is crucial in the development of a genuine learning culture. After all, who better to learn from than them? As to what they plan to say – well, they have chosen not to reveal that in advance so we will wait and see but whatever it is, I’m sure it will challenge us to reflect on our practice in unexpected ways.
David Wilkins (@david82wilkins) is Principal Child and Family Social Worker, at London Borough of Enfield.
For updates on the day, follow me @david82wilkins.