Young people with experience of looked-after services are now assessing them in a programme piloted by charity A National Voice. Louise Tickle reports
Over the years there has been a constant message from central government to local government that young people in care should be involved in decision making.
“Yet we consistently find things happening like one young person being put on an interview panel and being given 5% of the decision,” is the wry observation from care leaver Jonny Hoyle, chair of A National Voice, the user-led charity that advocates for young people in care.
This situation prompted A National Voice to instigate and pilot the Lilac (Lifelong Improvement for Looked After Children) project with five volunteer organisations and two local authorities three years ago. They now have lottery funding to roll it out nationally.
Lilac is an assessment process – everyone involved is wary of using the word “inspection” because of its regulatory overtones, but it does slip out nevertheless. The methodology used was formulated with help from the National Youth Agency and Ofsted (which at the time was not responsible for assessing the services received by looked-after children), and assessments were then carried out by care-experienced young people – including Hoyle – trained to carry out the Lilac process.
Their questioning is intended to pinpoint the extent to which looked-after children can influence decisions made by the agency responsible for their care.
Independent agency Fostering Outcomes was one of the first to undergo an inspection. Chief executive Martin Gilboy says there was anxiety about the process to begin with. “I had been wanting Lilac to inspect us from the start, it was something I felt passionately about. But our staff viewed it as another inspection – and, with any inspection, you’re thinking beforehand, ‘what are they really after, am I going to trip myself up?’.”
Despite being marked at 80%, Gilboy says the searching nature of the assessment process made them look differently at how they did things.
“It wasn’t just about what policies and procedures we had, but also questioning us on how we were delivering on the aims and objectives we had set out,” he says. “And it wasn’t just one form of evidence they were after.”
Kevin Williams, chief executive of TACT (The Adolescent and Children’s Trust), which also underwent a Lilac assessment, says having a care experienced assessor interviewing young people still in care makes the assessment unique. “It means trust is more easily established and the feedback is more honest.”
Gilboy agrees: “Some things we thought were good we realised could be better, such as involving young people in staff selection. We thought having young people’s groups was important, but we had to look again and think, well, we don’t just want a small cadre of vocal and confident young people speaking up. So you look for alternatives: web surveys, or getting people to do things anonymously so that they don’t have to stand up to state their views.”
Although Lilac offers the assessments free, reaction has been mixed.
Hoyle says: “Local authorities tend to be wary of young people inspecting or assessing their services, but every private agency [that has heard of Lilac] has been practically chewing our arm off.” Among councils, he singles out York Council and West Sussex Council as the exceptions that are keen to invite in Lilac.
Gilboy says that, though local authorities may not be enthusiastic initially, engagement with Lilac could enhance young people’s experience of growing up in care. “Even if they don’t get [the award] on the first bite, any change they subsequently make will improve things for young people.”
Hoyle adds: “Local authorities have no legal duty [to be assessed by young people in their care]. But we’re pushing for formal recognition of the Lilac quality mark by Ofsted. Every single director will spoonfeed you the words ‘we need to improve’ – so what we say is, invite us in to prove it.”
How Lilac works
● One care experienced assessor from a team of about five will make contact to agree a timetable of meetings, interviews and feedback sessions.
● The assessments can cover various services, including fostering, children’s homes and leaving care teams. A council requesting an assessment can choose the areas it would like covered.
● The assessments consist of two to three days meeting children and staff and scrutiny of key policies and procedures to examine the extent to which young people are involved in the daily running of the organisation.
● Assessors give immediate verbal feedback followed up by a written and professionally produced report.
● Assessors provide a feedback or training session for up to 12 staff to make an action plan for continuous improvement.
● A Lilac quality mark is awarded for satisfactory services.
● Although reports are confidential, Ofsted is told when an organisation has had an assessment.
● After an intervening period, the same Lilac team revisits the organisation to review progress.
This article is published in the 18 February issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Young leaders of the Lilac revolution