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Case study

Hartlepool: Opening a can of worms? Building capacity among practitioners across the early help system


17 Jan 2020

This case example is part of EIF’s ongoing work to showcase how local areas are introducing change, adapting their strategies and changing the way they work to reduce parental conflict and improve outcomes for children.

This is Hartlepool’s story about building a local partnership to increase the early help practitioner workforce capacity to attend to the quality of parental relationships. It is told by Jayne Moules, project lead for the Healthy Relationships Partnership in Hartlepool.

Find out more about our series of case examples or submit your local area's story.

Our starting point

Hartlepool is a relatively small local area with a population of 92,000 situated in the north east of England. A coastal town, it struggles with socioeconomic disadvantages and is in the bottom 10% of the most deprived local authority areas, as indicated by the 2019 indices of multiple deprivation. Hartlepool also has high levels of family breakdown. When the Healthy Relationships Partnership (HRP) first formed in 2015, parental conflict was prevalent in Hartlepool families being referred into social care. 24% of children were referred as a result of family dysfunction and practitioners reported that 80–90% of cases of abuse or neglect had parental separation as an influencing factor.

We were aware that practitioners in the early help system, including school-based family support staff, locality teams, health visitors and voluntary sector family support services, were not routinely addressing the quality of interparental relationships as part of their assessments, interventions or review processes. They did not perceive this to be a part of their role, and felt that they would be stepping out of their comfort zone if they were to ask about the relationship between a child’s parents and how any conflict might be impacting on the child. Parental conflict was not therefore identified in assessments, despite anecdotally being talked about as an issue for families on their caseload.

In 2016 we did an analysis of the early help assessments (known then as the common assessment frameworks, or CAFs). This gave us our baseline and the insights needed to create our workforce development programme. To help the analysis, we developed an audit tool for how thorough each CAF was in assessing the quality of the parental relationship on a scale of 0–5. For us, a good score (of 4 on the scale) meant that there was an awareness of the importance of interparental relationships, which resulted in an action or intervention included in the plan. This baseline audit identified that only 5% had a ‘good’ or above assessment of the quality of interparental relationships.

We also sought qualitative insights into the potential barriers that might exist to prevent early help practitioners working with this agenda. The HRP offered places on a pilot level 4 qualification ‘Working with Children, Individuals and Families’ to 18 local early help practitioners from across the schools, local authority and voluntary and charity sector (VCS) to assess how this six-month programme could enhance the skills of early help staff to work with family relationships. The HRP negotiated with the learning programme provider to incorporate reducing parental conflict within their established programme. In-depth pre- and post-training interviews were held with each practitioner as part of a qualitative evaluation. Practitioners told us they did not see working with parents around the quality of their relationship as part of their role. Instead, talking about intimate partner relationships was seen as threatening and like “opening a can of worms”.

The action we took

We set up the Healthy Relationships Partnership board, which has representation from key partners within the local authority, VCS and a specialist relationship support provider. This board is delegated to respond to the reducing parental conflict agenda by the Children’s Strategic Partnership, and is mandated to act on the evidence about the lack of awareness, confidence and skills of the workforce. One of its objectives is to “increase the capacity within the local area, through workforce development, to attend to the quality of parental relationships”.

We wanted to change the early help culture so that addressing parental conflict was seen as a routine part of the job. To do this, we put in place the following activities:

  • In addition to the level 4 training programme described above, 150 practitioners from a variety of agencies and disciplines attended a one-day skills-based training course entitled How to argue better. Local practitioners were trained to deliver this programme, which had been developed and evaluated by OnePlusOne. Learners were also offered follow-up practice development sessions where a member of the HRP team was available to talk through cases, offer support and model practice. Through this process, we learned that attending training isn’t enough to support practitioners to work differently.
  • To support the changes in practice, we developed an interactive practitioner toolkit and provided each practitioner with resources they can use with families. This was supported by a series of ‘Lunch and Learn’ sessions where practitioners talked through how they had used the resources and encouraged colleagues to build them into their interventions with families.
  • Local authority managers were asked by their strategic manager (who is part of the HRP board) to routinely ask their staff in supervision about the work they were doing to address parental conflict. This is now embedded into Hartlepool’s early help service standards.
  • To celebrate and share the success of this workforce development initiative, learners were invited to submit case studies or practice examples of work that they had done with couples. These were shared at our Relationships Matter conference and at a Practice Celebration event in 2019, with 14 practitioners awarded the status of Relationship Champion by the HRP.

What we achieved

Practitioners who have taken part in the workforce development programmes are reporting an increase in the level of their confidence to work with parents’ relationship issues. This is evidenced by case studies and in reflections contained in our qualitative evaluation of our investment in workforce development. We saw the greatest impact when it was made explicit by the practitioner’s manager or supervisor that considering relationship issues was expected of their role (especially for school-based support staff), where there were opportunities to share practice and where this work was routinely reviewed or part of supervision. Practitioners who completed the programme were able to evidence how their practice had been enhanced, helping couples to improve their communication and reduce children’s distress.

We were also able to observe that practitioners are more likely to engage with couples around their relationships and put into practice the tools and skills acquired on the training when the training was followed up with peer-sharing opportunities, where staff talked through a new idea or intervention that they were planning with a family and received support and encouragement from their peers.

Other changes that we have put in place as a result of our learning include:

  • revised job descriptions for the locality team family support workers to include the expectation of working with parents to strengthen relationships
  • evidence on the importance of interparental relationships and the impact of destructive parental conflict embedded within induction training of new staff in children’s services
  • managers being required to confirm that (i) reducing parental conflict is routinely part of supervision conversations and that (ii) the assessment of the quality of interparental relationships is becoming more the norm and is reflected in early help assessments.

What worked well and what we would recommend

Our recommendations for others would be to ensure the following are in place.

  • The workforce development programme is endorsed and overseen by senior staff within the organisations that have an interest in family work and in upskilling their staff.
  • Training is delivered in multi-agency/disciplinary groups to help build trust and demystify the roles of practitioners within the system.
  • The workforce development programme is seen as part of a cultural shift within early help provision, with other levers within organisations and the partnership used to ensure that this practice is embedded. For example:
    • organisations being clear of their expectations – that practitioners in their role will work with parents to support them and their relationships
    • practitioners are appropriately supported in supervision, recognising that the individual may have personal experience of parental conflict
    • recording systems allow for assessment and interventions which relate to the interparental relationship
    • case file audits include assessment of the quality of work to support the parents in their relationship with each other.


In Hartlepool we intend to sustain support for practitioners to continue working proactively on interparental relationships. The HRP is a system change programme funded by the Early Action Neighbourhood Fund until the end of March 2020, but legacy activities will be continued by the Hartlepool Early Help Operations board.

The local authority has also committed to ensure that:

  • all new parents are offered relationship support by trained and supported health visitors (who are part of an integrated locality team alongside early help family support workers and school nurses)
  • further steps are taken to normalise asking for help with relationships
  • access to relationship support is available through all schools and other wider early help services.

We are in the process of making changes to our recording systems (System One and the Early Help Module) so we will be better able to evidence the impact of the changes in practice.

Contact details
  • Jayne Moules, project lead, Healthy Relationships Partnership (until March 2020)
  • Graham Alton, chief executive, Changing Futures North East