As a child and family support worker at Kingfisher Primary School in Smiths Wood, Solihull, Debbie Todd explains what her role involves

Kingfisher School serves an area of high deprivation within the borough of Solihull. There are high levels of financial hardship, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, gang crime, and the area is in the midst of regeneration… need I go on?

I was originally employed in Kingfisher five years ago as the first learning mentor in a primary school in Solihull. While supporting children, it became evident that a lot of the barriers affecting children’s ability to fully engage in learning were often linked to their family and home environment. Consequently, my role evolved to involve closer work with parents and families and I became a child and family support worker four years ago.

A typical day in my working life

  • 8.00am: Switch work mobile on: three messages from parents:

Message 1: Parent saying her daughter will not be in today, she has head lice and can I get her the lotion and arrange for a food parcel to be sent out as she has no money until she gets her benefits Tuesday.

Message 2: Parent asking me to collect her son from home as she is not having a good morning. This mum has alcohol/drug issues and it has taken a long time for her to get to this stage. Previously she kept him at home and disengaged with all support agencies.

Message 3: Mum wanted an appointment to see me urgently as her ex-partner had gone to the house last night ‘kicking off’.

  • 8.45am – After collecting the child and responding to other texts I arrive at school to find two parents waiting to see me.

Parent 1: A Dad who has been unemployed for four years, has suffered with severe depression since losing his 14-month-old-son four years ago. I have been seeing him and his wife regularly for two years with different issues. He wanted to tell me that he was now ready to have a chat with a counsellor if I could arrange it. I was overjoyed; hopefully his wife will now seek the support she too needs. Fingers crossed!!

Parent 2: Wanted to know if I could recommend a wig specialist for her daughter, as she ‘was sick to death of her having nits’ and wanted to ‘shave her hair off’. Without going into every detail, we had a long chat on other options that were available and not so extreme and that will have less of a serious impact on her nine-year-old daughter’s emotional wellbeing! The mother was adamant that she was going to do this, but agreed to speak to our school nurse if I could arrange it today. Phew!!!!

  • 10.15am – Organised food parcel from local church, collected headlice lotion from chemist and dropped off to the mum.
  • 10.45am – Appointment with parent following this morning’s text message about the domestic violence incident. Referral made to Women’s Aid, and a call to housing with regard to the Sanctuary Project (they change locks and attend to other safety issues).
  • 12.30pm – Year 4 child came to see me to tell me that following a meeting we had yesterday with her mum, things were much better at home last night. She was overjoyed that mum had played a game with her when her siblings had gone to bed.
  • 1.00pm – Social worker came to see me asking if I could do a home visit with her to see a parent whose brother was currently in prison for paedophilia. Charges against the parent had been withdrawn but he still posed a risk. The social worker was having problems engaging the parent and, as I knew the family, she felt this may help.
  • 1.30pm – There was no answer at the home I visited with the social worker, so I return to school and catch up on missed calls and messages.
  • 2.00pm – Core group meeting for a family whose children had recently been placed on the child protection plan, following a disclosure at school. We attend these meetings between case conferences.
  • 3.00pm – A very long meeting with the school nurse and Parent 2 from this morning. The school nurse made an emergency appointment with the dermatology nurse as mum informed us that her daughter also has psoriasis and it was very inflamed.
  • 4.15pm – I took the child and her mum to see the dermatology nurse, cream was given and the mum advised to go back in five days’ time. She reluctantly said this was the last thing she would try.
  • 5.00pm – Back at school, answer messages, return calls and write up notes.

My role
My role in school really is varied. The overall purpose of our work in school is for every child to achieve their full potential academically and so I and my multi-agency colleagues work to help overcome barriers to learning so that children can fully engage in the classroom. As noted, it is not possible to work with children in isolation, so I extend support to other family members and work with them myself or, if more appropriate, refer or signpost them to other colleagues in school or in the patch in which the school is based (in north Solihull multi-agency teams work across geographical patches). We also realise that meeting children’s wider needs are important outcomes in their own right. As such, we work closely to the national guidelines of the Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda and embrace the underlying principles of ECM in our work.

We are very lucky at Kingfisher as we have a social work team based at the school. Although there were many concerns about how parents would perceive this, in my experience it has been a valuable asset to the school and has helped break down many negative perceptions parents have of social workers and of how they ‘remove your children’. I work closely with the team, often mediating between parents and social workers when relationships have broken down, encouraging parents to engage with identified agencies. Do not get me wrong: there have been cases when ultimately children were removed and taken into care: eg, five Year 1 children from the same class made disclosures to staff within weeks of each other and this led to three of the children and their siblings being placed in care. As you can imagine, things became very difficult for a while.

I am also the deputy designated member of staff for child protection at Kingfisher and as the school has a high level of children who are either on the child protection plan or classed as children in need, this takes up much of my time. I attend most case conferences and work closely with a range of key partners including social workers, child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), school nurses, health visitors and so on. I also have links with the community midwives, Connexions, youth inclusion and support panels (multi-agency planning groups that seek to prevent offending and anti-social behaviour) and local GPs. I find this work does not conflict with my role of supporting parents but supports it in most cases. It certainly broadens my knowledge of the range of partners working locally to support the most vulnerable children and their families and this helps when I signpost or refer families to other specialist agencies.

Another aspect of my role involves ‘buddying’ child and family support workers from other schools within the cluster and geographic patch, offering advice and support when needed. This is great as we pool knowledge, experience and expertise and share good practice. It also means that colleagues know they can turn to me for advice or guidance, which I am more than happy to give.

During my time as a family worker, I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with other professionals and deliver some excellent programmes that have helped move some of the most vulnerable parents forward. We adopt a non-deficit approach (ie, positive, not defining people in terms of their problems), focusing on supporting them to explore and find their own solutions and providing a forum through which parents offer mutual support.

Mellow Parenting (see below) was one such prgramme. Kingfisher was the first educational setting to run one of these programmes in Solihull. I co-facilitated its delivery with a colleague from the health profession and I received weekly supervision from a colleague in CAMHS. I feel very privileged that I had the opportunity to be involved in this programme and, because I am based in the school, when things go wrong (as they inevitably do at times), I am still around to lend an ear, reinforce what they learned from the sessions and guide them to get back on track. I thoroughly enjoy and am extremely passionate about all of my work in school, and I have certainly witnessed how good intervention and a multi-agency approach improves the lives of children and their families.

Mellow Parenting: its aims, criteria, content and delivery

Mellow Parenting supports parents whose relationships with their children are under severe stress. The aim is to enable parents to find their own solutions to family management problems through mutual support and with a minimum of ‘expert’ guidance. Families on the project have to meet referral criteria: child on the protection plan, domestic abuse, grave concern that the main carer has persistent difficulty in their relationship with their child(ren).

The programme, which runs for a full day a week for 14 weeks, combines the support of a personal group with parenting support using behaviour modification principles, and works by exploring feelings and expectations about being a parent. By agreement with parents, videotapes of their interactions with their children at home are used as an important aid to facilitate change in the parent/child relationship. Lunch and activity time brings parents, children and staff together for play, games, arts and crafts etc to promote fun and sharing. Individual practice/homework is undertaken every week.

Families targeted were parents of children who were experiencing all and more of the criteria for Mellow Parenting. As a professional, I felt I had exhausted every avenue available to help support these parents and their children.

After discussions with CAMHS, the headteacher and my colleague, and a lot of marketing to parents, delivery of the programme looked viable. The videoing was the biggest challenge we had to overcome, but as my colleague and I had built up good relationships with many of the parents and sold the benefits of this level of work, they all agreed.

After completing the programme, many of the parents have become very good friends, sharing Christmas and special occasions, meeting regularly in school and offering support to each other. Some of the parents have gone on to run a Summer Playscheme at the school for children in the local community. Others have gone on to receive much-needed support from other agencies, eg, Women’s Aid, counselling, family therapy.

All have discussed how they have benefited from the programme and how relationships with their children are much improved.