The select few

project in which people with learning difficulties were trained to help recruit
staff had mixed results. But, writes Ruth Townsley from the Norah Fry Research
Centre, the most successful examples depended on behind-the-scenes commitment.

people with learning difficulties to have more control over their own lives is
a central objective of the recent learning disability white paper Valuing
. It emphasises that people with learning difficulties should be
fully involved in decisions that affect them, including operational matters
such as staff selection. Involving people with learning difficulties in staff
recruitment also offers many opportunities for putting Valuing People‘s
key principles of rights, independence, choice and inclusion into practice.

Both the white paper and the Social Care
Institute for Excellence stress the importance of evidence-based practice that
promotes good outcomes and Best Value. Our Learning to Choose Staff project,
funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, put research evidence into the hands
of professionals and people with learning difficulties. The project team, based
at the University of Bristol’s Norah Fry Research Centre, brought together two
trainers, a consultant on service user involvement and a researcher. We used
good practice recommendations from our previous research1 about user
involvement in staff recruitment as the basis for our work.

We worked with five sites in southern England
that provided services to people with learning difficulties. We offered a
training programme, supported the development work of the sites and evaluated
the success of the process, both in terms of its impact on the practice of the
sites and as a model for promoting change and improving practice. We documented
the successes and challenges that participants and the project team faced
because we were aware that promoting and implementing evidence-based change can
be difficult to achieve, even with the best intentions.

The programme used a four-step format:

– Bringing people together.

– Reflecting on current practice.

– Learning and planning.

– Developing, supporting and evaluating the
initiatives developed by each site.

At each step we disseminated key findings
about the value of including people with learning difficulties in staff
recruitment. We also provided opportunities for participants to practise
skills, learn and work together and evaluate their own practice and progress.

The third step involved the running of a
five-day training programme at each site. This covered the main stages of the
recruitment process using activities drawn from our two existing resource packs2.
Professionals and people with learning difficulties worked alongside each other
to learn about the recruitment process and each other’s strengths, needs and
perspectives. We also encouraged participants to draw up detailed plans for
implementing user involvement back in their own organisations.

Immediately after the training, enthusiasm
was running high and people wanted to put their learning and planning into
practice. But evidence from our follow-up meetings with the sites a few months
later showed that three of the five had implemented their plans at policy or
practice level and two had struggled to initiate anything. It became clear that
generating and maintaining commitment and using evidence of success to change
attitudes was fundamental to the sites’ longer-term success to implement
change. When commitment was lost, challenged or eroded it seemed that even the
most well-planned initiatives were unable to flourish.

Several sites involved in the project
produced policy documents which set out their overall commitment to the concept
of user inclusion. Although helpful in raising awareness of the issue and in
setting an agenda for change, organisational commitment was not enough.
Commitment from individuals who were likely to be involved or affected was also

Successful sites identified champions at
policy and practice levels who played an active role in responding to different
levels of commitment and challenging attitudes. They also used evidence of
success to promote the concept of user inclusion.

Staff and service users at one of the sites,
Cherry Tree House, admitted that they had never considered the idea of user
inclusion in recruitment before and had reserved judgement about whether it
would work for them until they had taken part in the training. But evidence of
success from the training programme was exemplified by a support worker from
Cherry Tree House who said: "I felt somewhat dubious about the training
and what it could achieve, and was pleasantly surprised at the interest shown
by people with learning difficulties and the hard work they put in."

The training also offered a rare chance for
the proprietor, managers, support staff and people with learning difficulties
to build relationships and to work together as co-learners. One service user
said: "The support we got on the course was really important. It’s too
difficult to change things on your own."

Those who had taken part in the training
continued to act as champions for inclusion in recruitment and planned,
developed and documented the initiative. As well as writing policy to clarify
the site’s commitment to the concept, staff and residents put together several
useful recruitment tools for the next selection exercise. They kept the
initiative alive by keeping it as a regular item on house meeting agendas. And
they shared their developing skills and knowledge with other staff and
residents by talking through the outcomes of the training and referring to
training notes in order to "prove" that learning had occurred. But,
most important, residents had the chance to take part in two recruitment exercises
that provided excellent opportunities to practise their newly developed skills.

It was this evidence of hard work, completed
by people with learning difficulties themselves, that changed attitudes among
staff who had not done the training. Words were not enough; they needed real
proof that user inclusion was possible and achievable. As one worker said:
"I must admit that I thought it would be something that the residents
wouldn’t get much out of. But it has surprised me how much interest they have
shown and when they interviewed someone recently they were so professional. It
has taught me not to underestimate them."

The role that people with learning
difficulties played in making the initiative a success also influenced the
attitudes of policy-makers at Cherry Tree House. Initially the proprietor had
not been convinced that user involvement was a "good thing". But her
attitude changed when she saw what people had achieved.

Participants at Cherry Tree House had used
their involvement in the project as the foundation for building commitment to
the concept of inclusion in recruitment and for developing relationships across
boundaries. But it was the work behind the scenes by service users and
practitioners that got things moving. It seems that sustained commitment is
best achieved where up-to-date and real-life evidence is used to promote better


Define and document commitment to the initiative and to the underlying
principles of the initiative.

Identify or develop champions and other key people to take the initiative
forward and support them as appropriate.

Find champions at policy and practice levels.

Respond to different levels of commitment and challenge attitudes.

Promote the role of people with learning difficulties as central to the success
of the initiative.

Use evidence of success to promote and maintain commitment.

Townsley is a senior research fellow at the Norah Fry Research Centre. She is a
co-author of Committed to Change? Promoting the Involvement of People with
Learning Difficulties in Staff Recruitment; published by Policy Press and
available from 0117 954 6800


1 R Townsley et al, Getting
Involved in Choosing Staff
, Pavilion Publishing, 1997

2 R Townsley and M Macadam, Choosing
Staff: Involving People with Learning Difficulties in Recruiting Staff
audio tape and booklet, the Policy Press, 1996

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