Children in charge

As part of Durham
Council’s Investing in Children project, young people are being involved in the
appointment of senior managers within social services. Natalie
Valios reports.

Journalists are
sometimes perceived as a cynical bunch. So when Durham social services
department called Community Care to offer a “fly-on-the-wall” insight into how
young people were being involved in the appointment of two senior children’s
services managers, there was a certain amount of scepticism.

The mantra of
“involving young people” gets bandied about a lot, but how often does it really
happen? Children in care have sometimes been included in appointing care
workers, but if Durham’s assertion is correct, this is the first time they have
had a say in the appointment of such senior posts.

In fact, Durham
Council is a good listener. Young people were involved in assistant director
Debbie Jones’ job interview six months ago. Jones wanted to take this a step
further, believing that if young people are fully briefed there is no reason
why they can’t be involved throughout the process.

The decision to adopt
a far more universal approach to involving children and young people dates back
to 1996. This was when Investing in Children, a children’s rights project for
all children and young people in Durham – and not just those known to social
services – was set up.

The project’s aim is
to work with children and young people to promote their  interests and provide them with a voice in
strategic development. To this end it brings together organisations in the
county that are involved with young people, including local authority
departments, the health authority, probation and police.

Co-ordinator Liam
Cairns says: “We have been trying to build a far broader platform where we
encourage young people in care to talk to other young people about their shared

Five young people
volunteered to be involved in the interviewing process. All five are members of
Investing in Children. Three have been in the looked-after system, while two
have no experience of receiving social services.

On the first day, the
six candidates met the young people, Debbie Jones and the other senior manager
interviewing them, head of strategic planning and finance Karen Gater. After psychometric
tests, the young people conducted a group exercise with all six candidates.
They were given the statement: “We believe that children and young people in
this country are treated as third-class citizens. How would you go about
addressing this?” Two young people set up the debate, observed by Debbie and
the other three young people.

That afternoon
candidates faced individual interviews with the group of young people, who had
devised five questions:

– How do you feel
about the fact that young people are involved in the interview and may have an
impact on your career?

– Sometimes a young
person living with foster parents or in residential care cannot stay the night
at a friend’s because social services haven’t carried out police checks on the
adults in the home. Is that a good system? How would you improve it?

– Smacking has been
outlawed in Scotland but not in England. What is your view on smacking?

– If you are
appointed, what do you see to be the most important issues and what will you do
about them?

– Give examples from
your past experiences where you have listened to young people and been
persuaded to make changes.

On the second day of
interviews, candidates faced a formal panel consisting of two of the young
people – Kenny Ashton, who has been in care, and Ashleigh Sangster, who hasn’t
– sitting alongside Debbie Jones and Karen Gater. The other three young people
are Kathrine Hind, 22, Emily Card, 17, and Hayley Gillespie, 18. Both Kathrine,
who was in care from the age of 11, and Hayley, who had 12 social workers in
the space of eight years and who is now settled in a foster family, have
obviously been affected by their time in the looked-after system.

Their involvement in
Investing in Children is a way of ensuring that others in the system have their
voices heard. Emily, on the other hand, has no previous involvement with social
services, but started working with Investing in Children when she was 13.

They start mulling
over the candidates’ performance so far and it is clear they know the type of
people they want appointed. Once the final interview is over they join the
panel for the decision-making process. If no one can reach an agreement, the
final decision will be Debbie’s, which could in theory mean the views of the
young people end up being overridden.

Debbie starts by
outlining the key characteristics needed for the job: vision, professional
skills, energy, sound knowledge, capacity to handle complaints, ability to
delegate and prioritise, strategic skills, and people skills.

Everyone looks a bit
blank as the philosophy behind the psychometric tests is explained by a
colleague from personnel. The discussion moves on to examine how each candidate
coped with the various parts of the interview and how they match up to the
required key characteristics. Debbie constantly asks Ashleigh and Kenny their
opinion on the formal interviews. All the young people are articulate and
confident in their opinions.

Comments from the
young people about candidates range from “bossy”, “jargon freak”, “patronising”
and “nervous” to “good eye contact”, “committed”, “competent” and

After much debate,
all agree that three candidates are capable of doing the jobs. One might expect
that this would be the final stage at which the young people’s opinions are
sought. However, Debbie pulls out the application forms, references and the
results of the psychometric tests and reads them to the group. After a lot of
debate, everyone agrees on one candidate, leaving the group with two candidates
for the other job. Emily’s suggestion that the group looks at who has the most
weaknesses, rather than strengths, is taken up by Debbie. The five young people
plump for one candidate, while Debbie remains undecided as to who would make
the best appointment.

Perhaps surprisingly,
the young people are persuading Debbie to go along with their choice. This is
not lost on the young people themselves, as Hayley says: “We don’t want to
bully you into this.” However, Debbie finally concedes that it is the best
choice. The process has taken 90 minutes.

So what did the
successful candidates, who already worked for Durham Council, think of the
young people’s involvement? “Their bullshit detectors were really high,” says
Mark Gurney. “They weren’t interested in managerial speak or gloss.” He found
it an “immensely challenging and fascinating experience”.

Suzanne Welsh says
the young people’s interest and ability shone through. “It raised some
anxieties even though I believed in the process. It’s good for young people to
be involved, but when you know they have a say in your life, career and salary,
you hope they know what they are looking for.” For her, the most daunting part
of the two days was the individual interviews with the young people, “as you
were very aware of the shift in power”.

Later, Debbie says:
“If anything, it’s gone even better than I expected. It’s genuinely cutting
edge.” Her thoughts are echoed by the young people. According to Kenny: “The
people who got the jobs were the people we wanted. That’s important.”

Emily agrees:
“I think the final decision might have been different if we hadn’t been there.”
And Hayley sums up how they all felt: “Our opinions counted in the final

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