Social workers and school staff from across the borough gathered at Morden Harris Academy on Friday 13 May for a visit from the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, who had come to witness firsthand the results of a national scheme being piloted in Merton.
The Social Workers in Schools (SWIS) programme was launched in the borough in 2020 as part of the second phase of a national pilot, and sees social workers placed directly in secondary schools where they work alongside teachers and with students.
The minister heard from staff at schools across the borough, with representatives from Rutlish, Ursuline and Melrose, as well as the three Harris Academy schools in Merton, Morden and Wimbledon, before talking to students who had benefited from the scheme.
Both social workers and designated safeguarding leads (DSL) were enthusiastic about the programme, which is being funded and evaluated by What Works for Children’s Social Care, an independent charity funded by the Department for Education which seeks better outcomes for children, young people and families by bringing the best available evidence to practitioners and other decision makers across the children’s social care sector.
Attendance at schools had improved for some at-risk children, one social worker noted, because they were able to discuss problems in a safe environment with a trusted person whom they saw on a regular basis – “daily contact makes a massive difference”.
Workers said that they could now provide care as soon as issues occurred at school rather than waiting for them to be transmitted between school and services. Social workers could also immediately find out when students hadn’t been attending school.
“Being on the ground means you’re there at the points of crisis for children,” a social worker said.
Others noted that the programme had helped to turn around the educational trajectory of students: that young people who had once wanted to leave schools early without qualifications were now aiming to become doctors after they left.
Parents also found it a lot easier to engage with social care services through the setting of schools, one social worker said.
Mr Zahawi said: “I had the privilege of meeting several inspiring young people and their social workers, who are based directly on site, at Morden Harris Academy.
“The Social Workers in Schools project was scaled up from its success as a pilot and we now have 146 social workers placed in schools across the country. It was incredibly rewarding to see the benefits of this programme, with social workers able to identify risk faster to prevent issues escalating down the track.
“This is exactly what working together to improve children’s social care looks like, and why we commissioned the independent Review of Children’s Social Care because we know there is inconsistency in how children are cared for.”
Chris Cuthbert, Director of Practice at What Works for Children’s Social Care, said: “The Social Workers in Schools Programme aims to improve support and outcomes for children by placing social workers directly in schools where they have more opportunities to build effective relationships with young people, their families and the school community.
“After promising signs from three initial pilot sites, we are looking forward to seeing findings from a larger scale evaluation early next year.”