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Author: Josh MacAlister, Frontline 

At least half a million children in England don’t have a safe or stable home. These children and their families face some of the worst life chances, but great social work has the power to change this. That’s why Frontline was launched and why it recruits and develops outstanding individuals to be social workers and leaders to transform the lives of the most vulnerable children and families. This year we will be bringing our fifth cohort of new children and families social workers into the profession across the north of England.

Growing up in Rochdale, being a former secondary school teacher in Oldham and Stockport and having lived for a number of years in Manchester, I have personal experience of knowing what makes the north great and some understanding of what holds it back.  That’s why, when launching Frontline, there was never any question of the charity working outside of London during our pilot phase. Many of our first cohort started working in Greater Manchester and Frontline has now expanded across the north of England. We now work in towns and cities ranging from Durham to Wigan.

Our work across England has shown that children in the north face very similar challenges of unsafe or unstable family life which can be caused or intensified through drugs, domestic violence, cramped housing or poor mental health. Like young people across England, northern children benefit from the incredible love, care and resilience of families and communities, even in the most adverse of conditions. But there are messages from social workers about the realities for children and their families relying on services that can be grounding for those living in the south. Parts of northern England experience significantly higher levels of demand with 600 referrals made to social services for every 10,000 children in the North East compared to only 374 per 10,000 in the East of England.  This pressure is felt by social workers who, on average, work with more than 19 children each in the North West compared 16 children per social worker in London. And these regional variations of need and demand disguise enormous variation from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. This mirrors a wider finding in the Growing Up North report that the greatest variation in outcomes for children can be seen between neighbourhoods with populations of 5,000-10,000.

The last five years have been an encouraging time to work in the social work system given the focus and drive to improve social work practice. Frontline has played its part in progress taking hold in councils like Manchester where we will have recruited or developed over 70 social workers by this summer and where they recently came out of intervention from central government.  There have also been dramatic improvements that have been inspiring to watch from afar in places like Leeds and North Yorkshire. Our experience has been that these improvements have come about because social services for children have become clearer about their purpose and grown in confidence. The shift across the country, including in the north, is away from process driven work to a focus on practice.  It means social workers directly helping families as skilled change makers rather than orbiting around families as care coordinators. Progress in improving services in northern local authorities has been more impressive for the fact that many of them have had to cut budgets more dramatically than many of their southern counterparts. This progress results in better lives for children and it is a solid basis on which to further improve protection and support for children.

The Growing Up North report rightly calls on regions to bring the same mind-set, leadership and focus of economic regeneration to the work of improving experiences for children. This should mean councils making the most of the opportunities of devolution and working more across city regions. This would also help establish better conditions for innovation across public services. Outside of city regions, our experience of recruiting graduates and career changers into social work is that we also need to make more isolated parts of the north, where the need can often be greatest, more attractive places to work. There are plenty of ways we can make places like the Cumbrian coast more attractive for prospective social workers, teachers and public servants by offering relocation packages and salary incentives.

Our country is too unequal in too many ways. Those working with children and families in the north have enormous power to address the great divide in opportunities between north and south. As this report shows, we need to give public services across the north the support and challenge to help more children have a great experience of growing up.

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