Five years ago, when Abby Poar was studying for a master’s degree at the University of Warwick, she took a student placement with Coventry children’s services. It worked out so well that the department offered her a permanent job. Since then, Poar hasn’t looked back, rising rapidly through the ranks to the position of consultant social worker.
During that time, she has worked in different teams, including the duty team and the long-term team, but always within the area of child protection. Last year, Poar became manager of Coventry’s Frontline project – a new initiative, funded by the Frontline charity, to bring high-quality graduates, with at least an upper second-class degree, to work in child protection. In the summer after graduation, they receive intensive practical and academic training in social work, and then join a host local authority where, over a period of two years, they complete training and start jobs as social workers. Poar is responsible for managing a team of four graduates.
Coventry’s commitment to ensuring that new social workers receive thorough training, guided by established team members, is a key part of what makes the council a supportive place to work. Its participation in the Step Up to Social Work programme enables graduates to qualify as trained social workers in 14 months, while the Social Work Academy, launched in 2018, enables newly qualified social workers to be mentored by team managers. Recognising that child protection is a challenging area to work in, the department makes sure that, in the first six months, new social workers do their job alongside experienced social workers and practice educators.
“That drive to nurture a newly qualified social worker is something I’ve had first-hand experience of,” says Poar. “The council is really invested in developing you as an individual. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had lots of really good opportunities in a relatively short space of time.”
Training doesn’t finish once a social worker comes to the end of that six months. All social workers have the opportunity to take part in continuing professional development provided by the academy, which also has strong links with the two local universities, the University of Warwick and Coventry University. Poar has been impressed recently by a focus on practice education, often using external speakers. “That’s something that’s really exciting, because having good quality practice educators results in increasing the calibre of the profession.”
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Coventry children’s services, but it’s a department that’s now on an upward curve and they are determined to turn the service around and attain a good Ofsted rating. As Poar says: “It’s a completely different place to work. We’ve got all our basics in order and now it’s just about really increasing the quality of practice.” That view is confirmed by the recent inspection from Ofsted, which noted numerous changes for the better and observed: “All staff in the MASH (multi-agency safeguarding hub) use the Signs of Safety practice model and have a clear understanding of the strengths and risks in the families they are working with. This is supported by having a good rapport with parents that, in turn, helps to progress work promptly.”
One of those changes has been the implementation of the Signs of Safety programme, which helps social workers to build good relationships with parents and children in cases where there are suspicions of child abuse. “It’s something that all of our partner agencies are also being trained upon, and it’s really revising the way that we work,” says Poar. “It’s making sure that we are focusing on outcomes, working in conjunction with families and offering a kinder social work approach.”
The child’s journey through care is now at the heart of Coventry’s approach. “There are transition points for the children and families that we’re working with, so they’re more likely to get the same social worker for a longer period of time, and that’s all about helping you to see that journey through.” A thriving Voices of Care council enables the voices of children to be heard.
Because the whole department is committed to supporting the individual child, Coventry has a really strong team spirit, says Poar. Its comfortable size also makes it a hospitable place to work. “Because it’s quite a small city, it’s easy to get to know people really quickly and I really like that feel about it. In comparison to some of the neighbouring local authorities, which are far bigger, that is something unique to Coventry. As the redesign of the service has kicked in, staff retention has improved, too. “It makes it a nicer place to work when staff turnaround isn’t so high, because you get to build those good relationships with your colleagues.”
Poar also feels well supported by her managers. “Good quality reflective supervision is something that I’ve been really fortunate to have, and that’s the thing that makes the difference in terms of confidence in your own decision making.”
As a city, Coventry is building a reputation as a vibrant, happening place to live. It’s been named the UK city of culture for 2021 – and its successful bid included an emphasis on allowing children to be creative, something mirroring the council’s own approach to vulnerable children. For Poar, it feels like a city that is starting to thrive. “You can’t drive through the city without seeing all of the new buildings that are springing up. It’s definitely on the up and you can really feel that when you’re walking around the city. So it’s a good time to join.”