This is a guest post by barrister Martin Downs  (@MartinJDowns) and social worker Nicola McGeown (@NicolaMcgeown) about an interesting project running in Sussex. 

It is a commonplace that the family justice system has faced a decade of constrained budgets, increased pressures of work and falling morale amongst the workforce. This has left many practitioners feeling powerless. Responding to that perceived problem, for the past year, practitioners in Sussex have been meeting with a view to identifying what is best practice in the family justice system and how individuals can work together to bring about practical change in their daily work. 

The group is the initiative of social workers, lawyers and experts who have adopted the concept of a Quality Circleas best describing what they want to achieve.  This initiative was launched in the November 2017 and over the course of the past year has evolved from being a discussion group to one being more orientated towards effecting change.

The group meets approximately every other month at venues in each of the Local Authority areas in Sussex. The meetings are generally dedicated to one topic such as, “the voice of the child.” After experimenting with a variety of formats, the group settled on an arrangement whereby seating is in the round (so as to promote a genuine exchange of views), Power Point presentations are barred, the duration of meetings capped at 75 minutes and, discussion papers generally restricted to two sides of A4 on the principle that the participants’ time is at a premium.   

A good example of the group’s approach was a session on “Creating a Culture of Respect” arranged  to discuss an article by “Surviving Safeguarding” in Community Careentitled ‘Divisive, demeaning and devoid of feeling: How SW jargon causes problems for families.’ With the assistance of Andrew Pack (the blogger Suesspiciousminds) the group crafted a proposal: for the simplification of language in court; to make proceedings more inclusive; and to engender a culture whereby criticism is delivered, so far as possible, in a constructive way. Consultation has now started on creating a manifesto which will be adopted by all professionals involved in the court system in Sussex. 

The meetings are attended by social workers, Children’s Guardians, ISWs, academics, solicitors, barristers and judges who work in the area and are joined by local psychologists and psychiatrists and, on occasion, by representatives of the Police. Meetings are as inclusive as possible.  In the future more effort will be made to attract an even larger cohort of social workers by promoting the fact that Quality Circle provides an opportunity to strengthen the social work voice amongst other court professionals. 

The style of the meetings was influenced by what has been achieved by Lucy Reed and others in the Transparency Project in getting people representing disparate parts of the family justice system to meet together in a spirit of inquiry.

The group has been privileged to be assisted by Professor Michelle Lefevre, Professor of Social Work at the University of Sussex. This has been critical as it is obviously essential that if practitioners are to identify what is best practice, they must have access to the latest research as well as the skills to interpret it. There has been communication with the Nuffield Observatory and discussions are underway with a view to devising a way in which they can work with the Quality Circle to disseminate the lessons of research as well as assist some studies of the group’s own – all with an eye to establishing, what works?

The Sussex Family Justice Board has been very receptive to proposals by the group and in turn, it has happily adopted an identity as the Sussex FJB Quality Circle and works under their auspices. Facilitators of the Quality Circle attend the board meetings to discuss proposed reforms and agree a plan for their implementation.  For example when the Quality Circle discussedneglectit was shared at the board who agreed to the circulation of chronology guidance.  

The local FJB is about to launch a website – where the Quality Circle will have a presence and on the back of that Quality Circle will establish a presence on twitter (it is anticipated that we will use the twitter handle of @SxFJBQC).

Sussex, like most areas of the Country, already has an annual training day arranged by the local Family Justice Board. However, the Quality Circle offers an opportunity to share information all year round as well as having a more interactive approach to what is discussed and how. Local Judges led by the Designated Family Judge (HHJ Bedford) have been very supportive and participated in each of the meetings.  This is especially helpful as it increases the chances of bringing about beneficial change. Nevertheless, the group has been resolutely non-hierarchical with much of the organisation undertaken by a barrister, Martin Downsand the Principal Social Worker of East Sussex, Nicola McGeownalongside the PSWs and their equivalents from the other Local Authorities with the assistance of some Children’s Guardians, solicitors and barristers who work in the area. Over three hundred practitioners have asked to be placed on the mailing list.   This has been largely achieved by word of mouth with most reporting back that they have benefited from attending these events.  The outstanding task is to undertake some kind of evaluation of the Quality Circle.  Does it make a difference to the children and families with whom we work?

The group is now feeling well enough established to organise a programme for the next twelve months ahead and it is envisaged that this will include work with Resolution on problems in private law.  

The Quality Circle model has the advantage of involving all practitioners working in family justice at a local level in a constructive endeavour to bring about change – bridging the lessons of the latest research with day to day practice. It maybe that practitioners beyond Sussex might want to consider whether a similar initiative in their local area would be similarly fruitful. 

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Feature Pic by Mark Morgan on Flickr – thanks!