Commissioning and children’s centres. How Hertfordshire broke the mould

On either side of the entrance to Hertfordshire Council’s County Hall are two large metal statues of stags, the county’s emblem. One stag’s neck is bowed, head touching the ground while the other stands proud, with its antlers jutting high. The move from one stance to the other symbolises the journey the local authority has undergone as it has embarked on the process of commissioning its children’s centres – a major task that eventually proved successful.

Like all local authorities, Hertfordshire is required by the government to create a series of Sure Start children’s centres for all children living in its communities. The Sure Start children’s centre programme is based on the idea of providing integrated care, education, family support and health services to children aged 0-4 and their families. By the national deadline of April 2008, Hertfordshire must have 44 children’s centres operational and 80 running by 2010.

For Caroline Swindells, the council’s children’s centres strategic manager in the integrated children’s service 0-13 team, hitting this target is challenging. The buck stops with her for ensuring the commissioning of the county’s children’s centres is appropriate and completed on time.

Swindells works alongside Frances Coupe, head of partnership commissioning for the strategic commissioning team, and Helen Foye, commissioning officer in Hertfordshire’s children, schools and families directorate.

In October 2005, the trio started phase one of planning the commissioning process, worth £17m. Although the authority had previously created six children’s centres, these still do not provide the same range of services that the new Sure Start children’s centres will need to offer.

One of the initial difficulties the team had to overcome was that Hertfordshire had no model to copy or follow as only one small Sure Start project operated within its boundaries. Coupe says: “We had a blank canvas. We started by thinking ‘what do we want for children in terms of the Every Child Matters agenda?’ We also needed to work within centralised regulations and commissioning processes.”

The first task was for Swindells, Coupe and Foye to identify which organisations would act as lead agency for each of the children’s centres. Each lead agency is responsible for planning the development of the centre and ensuring delivery of its core services. In January 2006, Hertfordshire launched an expression of interest process to recruit the lead agencies from a wide range of disciplines.

Many other local authorities have chosen to rely on existing providers – often schools – rather than target different agencies willing to take sole responsibility for individual children’s centres. “We didn’t want to do that,” Coupe says. “We wanted to get smaller voluntary and private organisations interested in bidding to be involved. We broke it down so people could see the opportunities and get excited and engaged in the children’s market.”

For the 44 lead agency positions, Hertfordshire had 75 applications from private, voluntary and independent sector organisations, as well as from schools. By February 2006, a multidisciplinary panel had identified 36 lead agencies and, in March, the successful applicants were notified. Since then, eight more organisations have been identified and contracts drawn up, with the first children’s centre due to open this month. The opening of the remaining 43 children’s centres over the next 12 months will complete phase two.

The main challenges in commissioning the children’s centres were in having to do something new.

“It was a big learning curve for us all,” Swindells says. Not only did the team have to convince local children’s services providers that being involved in children’s centres was worthwhile, but also their own colleagues that commissioning services for children could be done differently. Coupe says: “Colleagues thought we wouldn’t get any interest from agencies and there was some pressure for us to go down the same old routes of commissioning.”

Phase three of commissioning children’s centres is now under way to meet Hertfordshire’s 2010 target. Swindells, Coupe and Foye are confident it will be met.

● Hertfordshire Council: 01923 471555

Lessons Learned
● Communicate with interested parties and stakeholders openly and in good time
● Develop strong partnerships with suitable providers
● Ensure members of the local community are informed and supportive
● Develop a support network for the lead agency managers so they can share experiences and good practice

Related article
Everything you need to know about…commissioning

Contact the author
Anabel Unity Sale

This article appeared in the 26 April issue under the headline “Daring to do it differently”

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