Next Steps… winners of the Community Care Awards learning difficulties category 2006

The learning difficulties category was sponsored by Care Principles

Next Steps 25+ was launched as a “gut reaction” to the sluggish modernisation of day services for people with learning difficulties, says Craig Dearden-Phillips, chief executive of Speaking Up, the Cambridgeshire-based voluntary advocacy organisation that runs the project.

The intensive two-year coaching and mentoring scheme helps adults with learning difficulties who are leaving day services to develop work, leisure and learning opportunities. In the past two years, most of the 38 people it has helped have maintained their lives with minimum support. The project was launched with a few grants and run as a pilot for a couple of years because “the local authority was quite hostile as we were supporting people to leave its services”, says Dearden-Phillips.

“Then there was a regime change at the local authority. They took one look at it, thought this was the future and questioned why they were on the sidelines. So rather than being a guerrilla activity it turned into a partnership and became part of policy.”

Now, Cambridgeshire Council has given some of its day services budget to help run the scheme.Next Steps is a mix of practical courses (how to cross roads, for example), personal mentoring (dreams, ambitions) and coaching to support people to make these happen. It is user-led and individuals choose to come. Importantly, Next Steps is about progression not maintenance. Members – they are members, not service users – attend for a maximum of two years. Next Steps is a personalised service and no one has the same programme.

From day one members are assigned a mentor and coach. The first question they are asked is “what do you want to do when you leave here?” This is asked every day for a month to underline it isn’t a placement for life.”

People might start with a trip into town and then we encourage them to work out somewhere in the world they want to go, says Dearden-Phillips.Groups plan a trip to foreign capitals, with staff observing from a distance and becoming involved only if necessary. The philosophy is that life is full of risks and that in life you have to experience risks. One member, whose disruptive behaviour landed him in an intensive assessment unit as an in-patient, now lives independently on direct payments, travelling the country on his own and earning money as a DJ. He is also a trustee of Speaking Up. While the standard cost of going to Next Steps is about 50 per cent more than a traditional day centre place, the local authority benefits from the fact that most project leavers no longer need a service.The courses for the real world include dealing with name-calling, sexual advances and safe sex.

Many members now have paid work or have taken up volunteering as a result of the project.The aspiration is for the project to become a freestanding social business and Speaking Up is in talks to look at rolling it out nationally.

The way forward
* Next Steps starts with the premise that life is full of risks and that to experience life you have to experience risks.
* The project shows how councils can work imaginatively with user-led voluntary groups. Although there might be resistence from some councils, opposition can be overcome with the right attitudes.
* It is about progression not maintenance, where coaching and mentoring are used to ensure that people with learning difficulties are in the real world and not segregated.the sponsor

For more information contact Craig Dearden-Phillips

This article appeared in the 18 January issue under the headline “A step up”

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