It is often only in times of crisis, such as COVID-19, that we are impelled to reframe our approach to professional life. It has been a painful, difficult experience for all of us working in Newham. Due to the demographics and the diversity of Newham the impact of COVID-19 has been disproportionately felt by those who already suffer disadvantage.
In the first weeks of the crisis, I experienced a real sense of dislocation; events were unfolding rapidly and the context seemed to shift by the hour. The new ways of working felt unfamiliar and unsettling. The loss of physical proximity and direct face-to-face conversations was a very strange experience. We found ourselves in a position where we needed to quickly adapt how we conducted our relationships with colleagues, residents and partner agencies. This has been a real test of resilience and also agility.
I have been impressed by the pace at which so many people in my area, children and young people’s services, have responded to the changes that have been thrust upon them.
Colleagues in social care are now staying in touch with families over the phone, via video calls, as well as socially-distanced home visits – at the door step or via a walk along the street.
Child protection conferences, and placement reviews are now happening virtually, and we are dealing with a whole range of issues on-line. I’ve seen huge resilience and altruism at work, with so many practitioners going the extra mile to support the children and families we work with.
This current crisis has very much helped us examine our purpose and how we can make a difference. We are having to make decisions every day about what we have to stop doing, and where we need to reallocate resources.
A key part of our improvement work across children’s services is about investing in the quality of practice – we take a restorative approach – working with families and valuing their strengths, while using systemic tools in our direct work. The change in context has meant that we have to work harder to ensure that every conversation counts.
Our colleagues in education services have been working closely with schools at this time. Schools are also having to adapt to a new context – managing staff shortages, and offering support to children from vulnerable families and children of key workers. I have been struck by the commitment of headteachers to do what they can to support families at this difficult time, and to do the right thing.
Across London the response to this crisis has brought us closer together and our professional network has been strengthened. London directors of children’s services have worked together through the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services, supported by London Councils. We have used the London Innovation and Improvement Alliance (our regional improvement vehicle) to support our four sub-regions to respond to the challenges.
I have had to adapt to this new context, and now I hold weekly video calls with staff from across children’s services.
One of the key themes we have been discussing in recent weeks is our wellbeing and how we have all been impacted on by what is going on around us. I think it has been important for me to be able to share my own experience and to appreciate that we all respond to uncertainty differently.
I have emphasised the importance of staying connected, sharing our experiences and supporting each other.
Like other councils across the country, in Newham we are playing our part to support the most vulnerable in our communities. I have seen first-hand that adversity has sparked innovation, resilience, collaboration and creativity. Nowhere is this better illustrated than through the #HelpNewham initiative, where we set up hubs in schools and council buildings, delivering much needed food and essential packs to vulnerable families.
I am sure that we will hold on to many of the adaptations we have made along the way.
Video conferences are a better way to bring together multi-agency groups for conferences and review meetings. Staff briefings work better when people can log-in from across the borough. The clearer focus on purpose means that our practice has become more effective. Meetings are sharper, shorter and more productive.
We are at a point when we are now moving from the response stage to thinking more about recovery. This will inevitably bring more uncertainty, dilemmas and opportunities. It seems to me that when we emerge from lockdown, the context in which we work in Newham is likely to be irreversibly different. I would like to think this may present us with the opportunity to remind ourselves of what we can achieve through collective endeavour and looking out for one another.
Tim Aldridge is the corporate director of children’s services at Newham LBC