South Gloucestershire Council has picked up a beacon award after building its looked-after children’s team around the young people themselves, writes Anne Gulland
The night of 4 March was a double celebration for care leaver Kiera Cottrell. Not only was she turning 20, she was also part of the team from South Gloucestershire Council that picked up a beacon award from the Improvement and Development Agency for improving the outcomes for children in care.
Cottrell believes that South Gloucester-shire, one of just two beacon successes in this category alongside Leicester Council, was a worthy winner. “I was so proud to be at the awards ceremony. The fact that the council involved us and invited us along was brilliant. That’s all we want as young people – to be involved,” she says.
South Gloucestershire’s journey to beacon award success began in 2001 when a restructure made it rethink how to meet the needs of looked-after children. Mike Connolly, who is now head of specialist care and inclusion services at the council, produced a diagram with colleagues called the team around the child: the child was at the centre with foster carers, social workers, teachers and colleagues in health, housing and other services fitting around them.
“We realised that children in care were at the heart of council business and that improving outcomes was a complex, multi-disciplinary, multi-agency process,” he says.
The restructure also happened when the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was being introduced, which, says Connolly, gave them a longer-term view.
“We could be involved with children until the age of 21 or even 24 if they went on to higher education or had learning disabilities. Where did we think that young person might be at 25? That was the driver for improving the service.”
The council introduced a specialist looked-after team and increased the number of social workers in the department. This then led to a review of its role as a corporate parent and the development of a corporate parenting strategy.
One of the biggest successes of that strategy is the What Next? programme which gives looked-after 15- to 16-year-olds the chance to do work experience at the council where they are given real jobs.
One young person organised summer activities for children in local libraries another designed a website for the museum service and one girl, who expressed a desire to be a panel beater, took a placement in the council’s workshop.
Connolly says: “We can set up personalised packages for the young people. Everyone who has done this placement has gone on to further education, training or employment.
“We want to build aspirations and ambitions. Adolescence is a difficult time for any young person but when your home life is disrupted it’s hard to sit down and think about getting good GCSEs. Young people who know what they want to do are more likely to do better. We want to foster that.”
Wes Cuell, director of services for young people and children at the NSPCC, which sponsored the beacon award, says this focus on building aspirations was impressive.
“There’s a lot of evidence that kids who have a poor start in life have poor aspirations. South Gloucestershire wanted to challenge that. The young people’s participation, involvement and ownership in the programme were hopeful,” he says.
Another plank of South Gloucestershire’s beacon success is the improved support it now gives foster carers. A new payment structure was worked out and the council has beefed up its recruitment activity. Placement stability has also increased and the number of children in three or more placements dropped from 15% in 2006-7 to 9.7% in 2007-8.
Cottrell says the way the council involves young people in its services is also responsible. “When I first went into foster care I was the shyest thing, but my social worker knew I wanted to get involved and do more and she gave me the reassurance that I could.”
Cottrell became a young recruiter, which involves being on the interviewing panel when social work staff are appointed, and also helps train staff who are going to work with children and young people. She missed out on the What Next? programme but was involved in the design of the logo and the leaflets.
“I have always felt I was listened to. I know some children won’t agree but I have always felt my voice was heard. In reviews I was always able to speak up,” she says.
In June, Cottrell got a job at Sure Start, working with under-fives and their parents.
“The reason I got the job was because of the experience I had at social services. Most of the other Sure Start workers have qualifications – they’re nursery nurses or they’ve got degrees. That’s why I’m so happy I had the opportunities I had. I applied for the job to build my confidence up not thinking I would get it. I was so amazed when I did.”
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Read about Leicester Council’s beacon-winning work
More about the Beacon Scheme
This article appeared in the 10 April issue under the headline “Young at heart of matter”