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7 March 2024

Paul: college principal to social work

Paul joined the Frontline programme as a career changer.

Paul joined the Frontline programme as a career changer. He trained and qualified as a child protection social worker in Enfield and remained in that role for five years. He now works as a family group conference coordinator, where he continues to deal with child protection issues by helping families to develop their own plans addressing the risks and challenges their children face.

I was a college principal for 13 years before I took up social work and I always had respect for the social workers I interacted with while I was in education. I’ve always worked in London and had a soft spot for young people in the capital facing adversity. I wanted to engage with those young people and their families outside the classroom and corridors. I continue to be frustrated by the fact that some of the obstacles to success for children and young people come from unjust economic and social structures and I am motivated to act as an advocate for families facing those issues.

The Frontline programme’s emphasis on leadership was invaluable

We had to do a good deal of leadership work to promote the family group conference service where I now work and to demonstrate to fellow professionals the positive impact that it can have. We’re now three years into the service and I think we have gained professional recognition and respect for the work that we do. I needed to communicate confidence and enthusiasm for our distinctive approach for it to become embedded as part of our authority’s practice. The Frontline programme’s emphasis on leadership was invaluable for developing those skills.

This way of thinking about family was completely new to me

There are two main principles that I’ve drawn from the Frontline programme and continue to follow. Firstly, training in systemic family work; the central idea here is that you can improve a family’s situation by treating the family as a system. Skilful, sensitive, respectful intervention – encouraging family members to reflect on their relationships – can empower those family members to make positive changes. Over time, the objective and expectation are that children will end up less at risk as a result. This way of thinking about family was completely new to me.

Recently I worked with a family who had a physically and emotionally challenging family dynamic. The family were very reluctant to discuss issues that had frozen their relationships, in that some of them had stopped speaking to each other despite living together. This was affecting the child, who was forced to live in an atmosphere of hostile silence. They asked me to chair a family meeting for them at their home and help develop a family plan to promote more communication and positive interaction at home.

Since that meeting, the social worker assigned to them fed back that they continue to hold their weekly family meetings, some of the things they were disagreeing about have been resolved and they’ve stuck to their action plan. Consequently, the child was reported to feel happier and was making more progress in school.

When you’re in the middle of a family and you’re listening to them talk, you can hear the historical misunderstandings and the absence of discussion. It’s your job to sensitively try and fill that space. That’s what I mean by promoting systemic change.

Families deserve our professional optimism

The other key principle that I drew from the Frontline programme is the notion that families deserve our professional optimism. We should always remain hopeful about the prospects for positive change within families.

It doesn’t mean that we should be naïve; sometimes external and internal pressures on a family are too great for enough changes to be made and it is not safe for the children to stay in that situation. But overall, my experiences both as a social worker and a family group conference coordinator have shown that most families will repay our optimism, if we work with them with honesty, patience and skill, with a motivational approach and with the professional resources that the Frontline programme provides.