East Sussex recognised the need for more proactive support for personal assistants (PA’s) six years ago. It was then the council decided to employ a dedicated personal assistant consultant whose role is solely designed to boost support and training for a sometimes forgotten workforce.
“It was very much about not regulating the workforce but instead recognising that these individuals could be at risk of being excluded from some of the opportunities available to other care workers,” says Frood Radford, service development manager for direct payments at East Sussex Council.
It has made the council stand out as an example of good practice in our recent investigation into the support available to personal assistants.
‘Meeting training needs’
Our investigation uncovered a significant variation in the training made available to personal assistants in England, with some councils only offering e-learning or basic induction sessions.
But in East Sussex, personal assistants have free access to an in-house offer of over 90 adult social care courses, as well as a six day programme tailored to meeting their training needs.
“The personal assistant programme includes sessions on the social model of disability and the ethos of being a personal assistant, as well as the more practical skills like moving and handling and food hygiene,” says Radford.
“If someone has a particular training need that we wouldn’t be able to meet in-house then the consultant is also very good at looking up relevant training and organising that.”
The PA consultant has also supported direct payment users to access the Individual Employer Fund, a ring-fenced part of the Workforce Development Fund, which is distributed by Skills for Care on behalf of the Department of Health and can be used to pay for additional training.
“As long as the employer is supportive then she will help people to access extra funding – knowing where to go, what to fill in, what the magic words are,” says Radford. “All the individuals our consultant has assisted have been successful in getting the grant.”
The council has also secured funding from the Workforce Development Fund to help personal assistants gain recognised qualifications. In 2012-13, six personal assistants achieved their level 3 diploma in health and social care and a further ten individuals have undertaken the course in the last two years.
‘Cover is critical’
A key problem faced by personal assistants wanting to access training is what happens to their individual employer while they are on a training course.
To combat this, East Sussex costs an annual sum of £150 into their direct payments to help fund a temporary personal assistant (sometimes called backfilling). It is dealt with in the same way as other various on-costs like tax, insurance and sick pay.
“Some people can work around their personal assistant not being there but for others it is critical,” says Radford. “The £150 tends to be used by employers to meet any expense that they, or their personal assistant, has to do with training such as travel costs or backfilling.”
“We make sure that we are realistic about what the true costs of employing someone are,” she adds.
To help find backfilling cover the council also hosts a database of vetted care providers operated in partnership with trading standards.
“It means individuals don’t have to go to an agency and can get someone in who is approved and who gets what it is to be a personal assistant,” says Radford. “There’s a lot of personal assistants on there who work in that way but get enough work out of it to make a living too.”
Another key finding from Community Care’s investigation was the lack of support available to personal assistants and individual employers. Only 14% of councils facilitated a support network for personal assistants and less than half offered this provision to service users.
East Sussex funds, to various levels, three personal assistant networks.
“They are run by the personal assistants but we very much support them by finding a meeting place and helping them to arrange guest speakers,” Radford says
She points out the networks don’t always need a financial contribution from the council but depend on help to find speakers who can tell them about services within the council, such as the housing support team for people over 65, carers, safeguarding and direct payments.
The council also commissions two organisations to provide support directly to clients – one is a user-led organisation and the other is a private company, as Radford points out sometimes clients have different support needs to their personal assistant employees.
“We want to at least make sure personal assistants are aware of the opportunities available to them and take them up where they can,” she adds. “Just because you’re not directly employed by the council, shouldn’t mean you can’t have access to those opportunities.”