Rochdale’s director of children’s services is passionate about relationships.
Whether Gail Hopper is keeping her staff up to date and connected through the pandemic, working on behalf of Rochdale’s families, or persuading members of her own family to adopt new technology, she’s convinced that the quality of human interaction is a force for good.
Resilience and wellbeing
As Covid-19 took hold earlier this year, Gail saw the very real danger of being overwhelmed by the public health crisis. During the first lockdown, she made keeping in touch a priority and started sending daily updates. Making time to brief people about infection rates and news highlights for the borough wasn’t always easy. After all, the usual, challenging workload was massively increased, but Gail felt that taking a moment to focus on resilience and wellbeing, and trying to keep positive using a variety of approaches such as laughter therapy was vital. It turned out that reporting on the lighter side of the Zoom phenomenon and showcasing the imagination, humour and humanity of the people around her became habit-forming.
It was also a way to stay in contact with the children, especially those still attending Rochdale’s 88 schools. Inviting them to draw pictures and write messages to accompany food parcels for people who were shielding meant that relationships were maintained at a distance. One message, written by a nine-year old has stuck in Gail’s memory: “Stay positive ,” they said, “one day all this will be over”.
"Stay positive, one day all this will be over."
Staying at arms’ length doesn’t come naturally to social workers – and it’s new to the families they work with too. It’s been interesting to see how people have reacted to the restrictions, says Gail. In Rochdale, Gail and her team were adamant that virtual meetings had a role to play, but not in all instances. Under the leadership of her team child protection conferences have continued – albeit in a large room with a minimum number of attendees. Gail’s team was determined that the power dynamics of such sensitive meetings should not be skewed by digital technology.
Part of the toolkit
Gail’s experience shows that video can work well. It’s been rewarding, she says, to see the success of virtual parenting programmes. Usually, a level of persuasion is required to get people to commit, but recently there have been more than 20 proactive requests from parents themselves to join. “There’s something about being in your own environment,” says Gail, “it gives people a feeling of being in control”. There has been an uptick in “stickability,” as well, with fewer people dropping out along the way. “We’ve seen a positive effect in mediation, too,” says Gail. “Technology will never take over completely, but will become an important part of the toolkit.”
Young people are often early adopters of new technology. At home with foster families, children have been quick to exploit what their gadgets have to offer. They can give family and friends a clear view of the quality of the setting, and a real feel for the care they’re getting. Pre-Covid, families wouldn’t have been able to see where their child watches TV or eats breakfast before school, and it’s reassuring to see what they’re getting up to.
No Wrong Door
With so much going on, it would be easy to be distracted from the longer-term aims for the directorate, but Gail is determined to keep on track. Rochdale is implementing No Wrong Door, an innovative, integrated relational model imported from North Yorkshire. Children in Care will no longer have their complex needs met in high cost residential settings, distant from their family and friends, but will have support to be cared for in permanent family settings (often their own) which combines foster care, therapeutic and police support under a single management umbrella.
"They're 'our' children, and we want to be sure they're getting the best care possible."
“We knew this was right for our kids,” says Gail. The programme wasn’t completely finalised when coronavirus struck, but “we had put in place a new programme, new management, and new staff” and the results are impressive. The model works on so many relational levels, and Gail is passionate about keeping Rochdale’s children close. “They’re ‘our’ children,” she says, and we want to be sure they’re getting the best care possible. Despite an increase nationally in demand for residential care places, there are now 13 fewer children in care outside the borough. Making sure children are where they need to be, with straightforward and stable access to the right support is crucial.
Day to day activities haven’t gone away. Gail acknowledges today’s social workers face different challenges now than back when she was a practising social worker. Things were different: “I remember being told I was over the top,” she says, after she insisted on recording supervision as a team manager. But good supervision involves quality assurance, and you learn from your own experience. “What’s more important than knowing the quality of what you are responsible for?” Gail asks.
When we spoke, Social Work England’s deadline for registration renewal was well and truly looming. Gail has been encouraging social workers to record CPD as they go along – so that the new, mandatory element of registration renewal doesn’t become too time consuming or left until the last minute. Good advice for anyone – whether we’re coping with a pandemic or not.