It’s easy enough to see why we might want to bridge the divide between education and children’s social care. Education is the closest thing we have to a universal service for young people; opt outs through home school are rare, and so most children, most days, will come into contact with teachers, teaching assistants, and other school staff. These staff, who can build close and trusting relationships with young people, are well placed to support them through difficult times, and perhaps to spot signs of trouble early. If a young person suddenly stops attending school - well, that’s informative too.
The tendency to look to education as a universal service to solve or identify wider social problems is common, and can be found in the creation of the role of the designated safeguarding lead, the designated teacher, and the Prevent Duty, which requires schools to be mindful of the risk of radicalisation among their students.
Many such attempts have been criticised for imposing a duty on a school for which they were not trained, properly equipped, and which distracts from the core educational role of a school. Put differently, with great responsibility, great power does not necessarily come.
Over the last 18 months, we’ve been trying something a bit different out. Working with our partners in Stockport, Southampton and Lambeth, my colleagues at What Works for Children’s Social Care, and our evaluation partner at the University of Cardiff, have tested out embedding social workers in schools. The workers are there to do statutory social work, but have also been working with teachers, school nurses, and other professionals to strengthen the approach to safeguarding across the whole school.
The name of the project, ‘Social Workers in Schools’ and the idea behind it, are simple - and indeed it was criticised at the time for being so simple as to be obvious. In reality, each of our three local authority partners implemented the idea very differently; with more and less focus on secondary schools; supporting alternative provision as well as mainstream schools; physically basing social workers in schools, or in local authority buildings.
Our recently published evaluation reports looked at each of the models attempted by the local authorities and tried to glean what worked best, and how teething problems were overcome. Our interim reports in particular found some evidence of cultural differences between teachers, and particularly those in schools with a strict behaviour management policy, and social workers, who preferred a gentler approach. As we’ve seen elsewhere, there was disagreement and confusion about the role of a social worker. These factors threatened to undermine the project in some schools - by creating a confrontational atmosphere between two groups of professionals both trying to help children, or by diverting social worker time towards more pastoral, `early help’ type work.
More prosaically, some schools and local authorities also struggled with access and IT issues to get social workers able to work comfortably within the school environment.
After the interim reports, schools and social workers came together to address these challenges, and our final reports suggest that they’ve been largely successful in doing so. Over the year, there was a movement to all social workers being based in the schools, rather than in social care offices.
The range of work was also broader than we initially envisioned - with more work being done to support families who had not been formally referred to social services, and to help strengthen the family to prevent those referrals becoming necessary. Both school and social care professionals reported better inter-agency relationships, and a better understanding of the others’ role. There was also some evidence that social work was ‘demystified’ for some young people.
This study wasn’t designed to look at the impacts of the project in a quantitative sense, but the analysis we were able to do is generally positive, suggesting less state intervention in family life was needed as a consequence of the social workers’ presence.
These findings are positive, but this is far from the end of the road. Last month, we announced funding to scale up the social workers in schools programme to up to 160 secondary schools across the country. By taking the best bits of each approach from the pilot, and testing it across at least ten local authorities using a randomised controlled trial, we’re hoping to maximise the impact, while building a robust evidence base to give us the best possible insight into how to best support children and their families.
Michael Sanders is chief executive at What Works for Children’s Social Care