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Case study

Rochdale: Starting a ‘relationship revolution’ to improve the quality of relationships for everyone


26 Mar 2021

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 Rochdale’s story about developing a whole system approach to talk about parental conflict and address the population’s needs. It is told by Emily Nickson Williams, former strategic lead of early help & relational practice.

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

Our starting point

Rochdale has a population of around 218,000, people with a large proportion of the population living in deprived areas. The borough is ranked the 15th-most deprived in England based on a rank of the average scores for lower-layer super output areas. Rochdale is increasingly diverse, and the needs of the population are predictably shaped by deprivation. Rochdale as a whole has poorer health, life expectancy and healthy life expectancy compared to the rest of the North West and England, and the percentage of workless families is 17.3%, which is 3.4% higher than the UK average. Over the last six years, the level of crime deprivation has significantly worsened, moving from an average rank of 27th in 2015 to the second-worst in the country in 2019.

In 2017, we started to see an increase of referrals and requests for support into children’s services that we concluded should be more accurately described as ‘family relationship difficulties’ - many of which we felt were in need of a therapeutic, relational response. We also observed that our interventions and responses at the time did not always meet the needs of the families in relation to parental conflict, problems between separated parents, or children who were being violent or abusive towards their parents or carers.

We wanted everyone to understand that relationships are a right and not privilege, and to highlight the issues people face when their relationships are challenged, such as poor mental health and substance misuse. We also wanted to improve our support to meet the real needs of the local families. With this in mind, we felt the most powerful way to do this was to start a ‘relationship revolution’, pioneered by a broader, more diverse group of men, women and children. We agreed that this group would work co-operatively to support their wider communities in developing a strengthened focus on relationships, seeking ultimately to improve the quality of relationships for everyone who lives in the Rochdale borough. This work began its life in children’s services, but we soon demonstrated that the approach was about a whole-system change that needed to include a vast range of partners from the local authority, health, education and voluntary sector.

The action we took

We wanted to develop a whole system approach to talk about parental conflict and a practice change agenda to address the population’s needs. To do this, we put in place the following activities:

  • We felt we needed to develop a clear vision about what we wanted to achieve and why in relation to parental conflict. In order to kickstart this work, we wrote a ‘Relationships Manifesto’, which was our call to action for partners and residents. This helped us to communicate the vision clearly. The manifesto has received widespread recognition across the UK, as we are the first ever local authority to declare and commit to our intentions in this way.
  • We organised a conference to launch this agenda along with a strong brand and to involve stakeholders and partners. At the conference we invited keynote speakers to share the overwhelming compelling evidence, including Professor Gordon Harold and other significant leads in their field, from CAFCASS and family mediation. Attendees signed a pledge that they would develop a relational response within their own organisations and commit to a strategy and action plan, which they had to write themselves. These signatories were named ‘system change leaders’.
  • We developed a relationship webpage, relationship champion badges for those trained to support couples/families, a poster campaign and a Twitter hashtag, so that the work would be visible. The poster campaign was public-facing, and included personalised messages for different services. For instance, the poster used in children centres asked parents if they were worried about their arguments affecting their children, while the poster used in adult mental health settings asked if mental health was affected by arguments at home.
  • We re-wrote the domestic abuse strategy to include references to parental conflict and to clarify the difference between domestic abuse and parental conflict.
  • To start collecting data on parental conflict in a consistent way, we changed the early help assessment so that anyone assessing a family for early help support was able to tick an indicator for ‘family conflict’. The data showed that, on average, 66% of all families that engaged in early help support were in need of relationship support. This percentage has remained consistent over the last couple of years.
  • We held ‘citizens hearings’ to listen to Rochdale’s community and discuss what matters to local members. Relationships between the community and the system, within the community and within the family, came out very strongly as a central theme. To meet this need, we trained relationship champions in the community.
  • Through our work we focused on various types of family relationships. For instance, we also influenced work across the region to tackle child to parent violence and abuse (CPVA), with positive television and radio broadcasts by ITV Granada news and BBC radio.
  • In October 2019 Rochdale hosted a follow-up ‘Strengthening family relationships conference’ where we invited our Greater Manchester neighbours to share good practice around supporting family relationships.
  • We established a regional group of leads with responsibility for the RPC agenda in their local area, supported by DWP’s Regional Integration Lead. In the same month, Gail Hopper, director of children’s services, and Emily Nickson Williams, strategic lead for relational practice, hosted a Greater Manchester roundtable event with Lord Farmer and his team to talk about how we drive this agenda across the region.

What we achieved

  • The Rochdale Relationships Revolution has received national recognition and has inspired many other local authorities to use some of the strategies, concepts and ideas we had back in 2018 and have developed since. For instance, in 2019 we were invited to Parliament twice to talk about our manifesto and associated relational work. Moreover, inspired by Rochdale, some local authorities are developing their own ‘brand’ around the parental conflict agenda often using the ‘Relationships matter’ wording. Thanks to this work, Rochdale had been named as a finalist in the Children and Young People Now Awards.
  • Together with other regional leads, we created the Greater Manchester Relationship Practitioner Toolkit, which was launched in October 2020 and has already been adopted by other areas in the country including Rotherham, North Yorkshire and North East Lincolnshire. The tools and strategies used in the toolkit were first tested by a small group of Rochdale practitioners to ensure that they made a difference to the couple relationship. Couples have described the support of the toolkit, coupled with a skilled and trained practitioner using it with them, as ‘life-changing’. The aim of the toolkit is to support thousands of multi-agency practitioners across an entire region, using the same language and tools to ensure that anyone working on the frontline can support individuals and couples confidently. For further information about the toolkit, please contact Dee Alletson or Kate Nicolle.
  • To ensure our relationship support was effective, we designed pre- and post-programme evaluations for some of the relational programmes we developed. To assess the impact of our support, we used both system data and self-reported data from families. A recent pre/post evaluation, for instance, showed that 75% of the participants of the pilot CPVA programme no longer required a support plan (CIN/CP/early help,) 12 months from the start of the programme.
  • Thanks to the relationship champion training, there are now over 700 relationship champions with the skills and confidence required to support families effectively.

What worked well and what we would recommend

  • There were a number of challenges in coordinating such a huge piece of work, and we quickly realised that this work could not rely on goodwill and needs to be continuously driven. Our recommendations for others would be to ensure there is a full-time strategic lead and a small team of people dedicating to promoting and tracking the progress of the agenda. Moreover, senior leadership buy-in across the partnership is essential, along with the support of elected members. Regular updates on progress, data, and continuous promotion of research and case studies, helped to keep the agenda in people’s minds.
  • Initial training around parental conflict helped to kickstart the awareness raising professionals needed to understand the importance of the agenda.
  • It is crucial to ensure that there is a strategic partnership specifically dedicated to this agenda that is directly linked to the other connected agendas – specifically children’s mental health, parenting programmes, adult mental health and domestic abuse. Having a strategic partnership group also helped to recruit a skilled and willing relationship champion training team, which included health visitors, social workers, domestic abuse workers, housing officers, adult mental health workers and children’s substance misuse workers. These professionals committed to training people in their own teams as well as others across the partnership through regular training sessions which we organised through the safeguarding partnership.

The future

Although the progress made and the evaluation of the impact on families has been hindered by the pandemic, in the future we aim to provide further support to this emerging agenda and evaluate its impact:

  • In 2018, when the strategy was being written, we asked partners to write their own action plans around the RPC agenda, and we included them in a borough-wide relationship strategy. We aim to return to it in the future to evaluate the progress made and discuss the next steps. We also want to see how the pandemic has shaped service provision and support for couples across the partnership.
  • Due to the pandemic, the relationships team adapted the training to deliver virtual sessions, and soon realised that virtual training is very effective to increase awareness and upskill the workforce. We aim to review what we learned from this experience and to shape future training using the relationship practitioner toolkit.
  • Before the pandemic we set up a peer review system so that agencies across the partnership could ask for support from another partner agency to look at their own progress in relation to their RPC work. In the future we want to return to this peer review system to sustain cross-agency support and promote collaboration.
  • Since the beginning of our work we have collected data on parental relationships by making changes to the parenting programmes referral forms, the early help assessment, and the supervision forms for relationship enquiries. This data can help to understand better the level of need of the families living in Rochdale. We aim to analyse further this data to inform our future strategies.
  • We aim to start training for GPs, a previous plan which was put on hold because of Covid. The aim of the training, which will be delivered by trained relationship champions, is to offer immediate support to people who express worries about their relationship when visiting their GP.
  • We will offer training to student relationship champions and we will develop a student relationship toolkit to promote peer-to-peer support to students in response to Covid-19 and the lockdown.
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