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The future is unwritten

I am an optimist. I’ve also got a strong tendency to look forward and not back. Both tendencies have been challenged over the last year as we deal with the consequence of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 of our loved ones and wreaked devastation to the social, emotional, and educational lives of our children and young people - an impact that has been felt unevenly, and most evidently, amongst the poorest and those with the least cultural capital to draw upon to get them through the crisis.

The toll of deaths through Covid now outstrips the number of civilian deaths during World War 2 (that figure was nearly 70,000). The war created the pressure for social change which led to the Beveridge report and the creation of the Welfare State as we know it. Which brings me back to my desire to look ahead. Whilst I really don’t have any expectations of a new Beveridge (I’m not that much of an optimist…), we do have some vehicles for change on the starter’s blocks. As we all know, the government’s review of children’s social care was launched recently under the leadership of Josh MacAlister and an early request to the Competitions and Markets Authority to review the private children’s homes ‘market’ was a sure-footed start alongside the early call for advice – no doubt more will be said and much more water will flow under this particular bridge in due course. Similarly, the long awaited SEND review will be published at some point in the near future, hopefully before we are all bankrupt. I wonder too, if it would be too much to hope that the role of local authorities in ensuring that vulnerable children have continued to attend school in good numbers during the pandemic, might also lead to a recognition of our valuable role as a support, challenge, and improvement agency for schools?

So, change is in the air, but I also wanted to think a bit about the changes that Covid has wrought at a more micro level. In particular, the way in which we now work with each other and the children and families that rely on us; and the value that we now place upon the things that we perhaps previously thought of as ephemeral to our work. Remote and online working has been an interesting experiment that this pandemic has forced upon us. A year ago, very few of us had the capability or inclination to work all day via our screens. Now we are all experts at Teams, Zoom etc and are getting used to different ways of balancing our work commitments whilst working from home (and trying not to make it ‘living at work’).

The same applies on our front lines. We have discovered new ways to keep in touch with children and families and new ways to help them learn. Neither are fully satisfactory – we know that. Any social worker will know that we use all of our senses in an assessment to get the full picture of what is going on within a family. Similarly, online teaching cannot replicate the classroom experience. But we have to think about what it is that is missing and what it is that we have gained and wish to keep. When we surveyed our staff in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, the vast majority told us that they valued the flexibility of working from home and that it gave them a better work/life balance, making them more effective at their jobs. Equally, when we talked to children, many of them (especially the older teenagers) valued regular on-screen catch ups more than when they actually meet in person with a professional. ‘This’, they tell us, ‘is how we live our lives – you should adapt to that’; and maybe four on-screen catch ups in a month might be better than a single, one hour in-person meeting with a child in care in a steady placement. But I would be the first to say that it wouldn’t be right or safe to do this in all circumstances. Equally, when we look in a little more depth at what our staff tell us, it is more nuanced. In particular, they miss working alongside colleagues, bouncing ideas off each other, talking through cases and issues in an informal way, they miss the camaraderie and communication that people working together in a team generates. So, like many of you, I am currently wrestling with what the future looks like; how often should people be together in a team – all the time? Once a day? Once a week? Where? What does the working environment look like (not serried rows of desks with fixed computers that is for certain)? Also, how do we apply these approaches to our work with children and young people? How do we decide whether to take approach x or approach y for each individual – or are regulatory inflexibilities going to force us back into a box that might not be fit for purpose for the future?

There is much to play for. The critics of the Beveridge report accused it of trying to build a ‘New Jerusalem’. We’re a million miles from that, but maybe, just maybe, there is just the glimmer of an outline of something different, something better. I told you I was an optimist.

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