Safe As Houses

Clare Tickell is the first woman to lead NCH in its 137-year
history. Not that she knew it until after she had the job. She is
also only the third layperson to run the agency since 1986 when
Methodist ministers ceased to be the principal, as the head of the
children’s charity was then known.

At first sight she might not seem to have been the obvious
candidate. Granted, she has spent her working life in the voluntary
sector apart from two early years in probation, but she has worked
only in housing. She comes to NCH from Stonham Housing Association
where she has been chief executive since 1997. Before that she was
chief executive of Phoenix House, which she joined after three
years as director of Riverpoint from 1989.

So why move from housing into children’s services? She says: “At
Stonham we did a lot of work with children and young people in care
and leaving care. I could see that it was important and the real
difference you could make. I found that exciting. I loved working
with children and young people. It was uplifting and

Tickell left school at 17 and worked as a secretary for four years
– because she couldn’t think what she wanted to do – before
becoming an assistant warden with the probation service and going
to the University of Bristol to study for a social work

And there everything started to fall into place. She speaks
thankfully of the effect that the School of Advanced Urban Studies
(now merged into the School for Policy Studies) had on her, with
its stress on housing policy, community work and what would now be
called neighbourhood regeneration. She was particularly influenced
by two teachers there, Peter Townsend, now professor of
international social policy at the London School of Economics, and
Phyllida Parsloe, now emeritus professor of social work at the
University of Bristol.

While at Bristol she also worked as a volunteer, taking a placement
with Shelter’s housing advice centre where she worked with homeless
families and travellers. “It opened my eyes to the importance of
housing,” she says. “I liked the fact that, as an intervention,
housing was something practical, as were the discussions you were
having. That was something I enjoyed.”

After her two-year stint as assistant warden of a probation hostel,
Tickell spent three years as deputy director of Centrepoint when
single homelessness and homeless young people were gaining public
attention. “It was housing in a social context,” she says.
Tickell stayed in the voluntary sector because it seemed to be more
flexible. She also emphasises the traditional virtues of innovation
and independence when she refers to the potential problems posed by
the contract culture, no small consideration for NCH when 80 per
cent of its income comes from contracts and other fees.

“If you are into contracts, that gives you less room to innovate
but it is very important that the voluntary sector retains its
independence, ability to innovate and respond to, and to predict
what’s happening. Independence is especially important as it gives
users a voice or enables them to have a voice.

“A lot of contracted work is about central or local government
policies. So the sector needs to think about how it can retain its
independence. The environment within which it works has become
increasingly complex and the split between public, voluntary and
independent is constantly changing and blurring.

“It is also important to retain the diversity of the voluntary
sector. One thing about large organisations, like NCH, is that you
can work in partnership with smaller organisations.”

Like many agencies, NCH has numerous contracts because it works
with about 150 local authorities. The new chief executive sees a
possible conflict between that and the Gershon agenda of cutting
down on the multiplicity of contracts and using buying power to
increase efficiency.

Looking at the children’s services reforms, she says: “You always
need to give things time to work and be realistic about delivery,
which doesn’t always suit political agendas. People thinking in
different ways takes time; creating new relationships takes time,
and what you are working with are incredibly complex bits of

In the past few years NCH has relaxed its formal ties to the
Methodist Church. Tickell calls herself “a very spiritual person”,
adding “I’ll leave it at that”, and seems taken by the Methodist
statement of values.

“When I applied, they were sent to me,” she says. “I didn’t
realise, at first, that they were Methodist values. A value
statement is important for any organisation, especially where you
are now contracting for business like so many voluntaries. At the
very least they help you not to make mistakes in the environment in
which voluntary agencies work; they’re like a compass. What’s
helpful for NCH is that these values are enduring.”

The statement announcing her appointment spoke of NCH’s vision. Did
she have a vision for NCH? She refers to the users being at the
heart of the agency, with “real mechanisms for learning from, and
listening to children and young people, and being able to
demonstrate how we respond to what they and other stakeholders
say”. She also talks about using NCH’s size to try out new ideas
and looking at how to run an organisation across four nations.

But that doesn’t entirely seem to answer the question about a
vision for an organisation, the income of which has grown from
£47m in 1994 to £199m in 10 years. The number of projects
in the same period has risen from 215 to 500.
Tickell thinks for a moment, smiles and says: “More of the same.”

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