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Ingenuity and innovative thinking helps reach new families

A photo of Rama Saidykhan with daughter Fatima

Innovative thinking and a can-do approach has meant more children than ever are being supported before they attend school.

During the Covid lockdowns, staff in Middlesbrough Council's School Readiness Team found an ingenious way to connect with families while home visits and group activities were banned by the Government.

They used simple and readily available technology like WhatsApp to offer a range of support and early years programmes online - utilising video calls to maintain a face to face service.

It's believed Middlesbrough was the only local authority in the region to deliver services this way during the lockdowns.

And the approach was so successful the online offer will remain, alongside in-person services, now that all Covid restrictions have been lifted.

The approach suits the needs of families and allows the team to continue to reach some who would previously never have engaged with the service.

Bethan Whitehead, 32, was one of those who took part online, completing the Chat, Play, Learn, Sing course on WhatsApp with daughter Freya, who was 18-months-old at the time.

"I'm not the sort of person who would have went along to a group, I wouldn't have had the confidence," said Bethan, who lives in Longlands with her husband and children.

"Having the course on WhatsApp was perfect - it was really easy to connect, and I didn't have to stress about having people come to the house when I've got the other kids here too.

"It was more convenient, but I think it helped me to open up a bit as well.

"I realised a lot of the things we talked about I was already doing - we love singing, so I was already singing daft songs with the kids going round the supermarket.

"It gave me more confidence in my parenting. There are mums who don't engage with groups and activities, so having this one-on-one support is amazing."

Mum-of-three Rama Saidykhan, who lives in Grove Hill, completed the Play and Learn together course with youngest daughter Fatima, who is now three.

She said: "It worked really well - I learn better face to face, so to see Rachael on the screen was fantastic and I learned just as much as I would have done if she'd come to the house.

"Fatima is my third child but I still knew I had things to learn. It helped me introduce a routine for bedtime, and bring in boundaries for her and learn it's OK to say no."

Jo Tickle, one of Middlesbrough Council's School Readiness Assistant Team Managers, said: "Before Covid, there were some people who did not engage with our service, either because they may not have wanted a home visit or getting to one of our Children's Centres was difficult for them, but offering our interventions online has seen many new families come forward as it better suits their needs.

"It's convenient and easy for them to take part, especially with a video call on WhatsApp, as almost everyone has that on their phone.

"It's fantastic for the team, because we can help more people and deal with issues we might not have otherwise heard about.

"A lot of families have opened up more because they were online."