Safe As Houses

    Clare Tickell is the first woman to lead NCH in its 137-year
    history. Not that she knew it until after she had the job. She is
    also only the third layperson to run the agency since 1986 when
    Methodist ministers ceased to be the principal, as the head of the
    children’s charity was then known.

    At first sight she might not seem to have been the obvious
    candidate. Granted, she has spent her working life in the voluntary
    sector apart from two early years in probation, but she has worked
    only in housing. She comes to NCH from Stonham Housing Association
    where she has been chief executive since 1997. Before that she was
    chief executive of Phoenix House, which she joined after three
    years as director of Riverpoint from 1989.

    So why move from housing into children’s services? She says: “At
    Stonham we did a lot of work with children and young people in care
    and leaving care. I could see that it was important and the real
    difference you could make. I found that exciting. I loved working
    with children and young people. It was uplifting and
    energising.”

    Tickell left school at 17 and worked as a secretary for four years
    – because she couldn’t think what she wanted to do – before
    becoming an assistant warden with the probation service and going
    to the University of Bristol to study for a social work
    qualification.

    And there everything started to fall into place. She speaks
    thankfully of the effect that the School of Advanced Urban Studies
    (now merged into the School for Policy Studies) had on her, with
    its stress on housing policy, community work and what would now be
    called neighbourhood regeneration. She was particularly influenced
    by two teachers there, Peter Townsend, now professor of
    international social policy at the London School of Economics, and
    Phyllida Parsloe, now emeritus professor of social work at the
    University of Bristol.

    While at Bristol she also worked as a volunteer, taking a placement
    with Shelter’s housing advice centre where she worked with homeless
    families and travellers. “It opened my eyes to the importance of
    housing,” she says. “I liked the fact that, as an intervention,
    housing was something practical, as were the discussions you were
    having. That was something I enjoyed.”

    After her two-year stint as assistant warden of a probation hostel,
    Tickell spent three years as deputy director of Centrepoint when
    single homelessness and homeless young people were gaining public
    attention. “It was housing in a social context,” she says.
    Tickell stayed in the voluntary sector because it seemed to be more
    flexible. She also emphasises the traditional virtues of innovation
    and independence when she refers to the potential problems posed by
    the contract culture, no small consideration for NCH when 80 per
    cent of its income comes from contracts and other fees.

    “If you are into contracts, that gives you less room to innovate
    but it is very important that the voluntary sector retains its
    independence, ability to innovate and respond to, and to predict
    what’s happening. Independence is especially important as it gives
    users a voice or enables them to have a voice.

    “A lot of contracted work is about central or local government
    policies. So the sector needs to think about how it can retain its
    independence. The environment within which it works has become
    increasingly complex and the split between public, voluntary and
    independent is constantly changing and blurring.

    “It is also important to retain the diversity of the voluntary
    sector. One thing about large organisations, like NCH, is that you
    can work in partnership with smaller organisations.”

    Like many agencies, NCH has numerous contracts because it works
    with about 150 local authorities. The new chief executive sees a
    possible conflict between that and the Gershon agenda of cutting
    down on the multiplicity of contracts and using buying power to
    increase efficiency.

    Looking at the children’s services reforms, she says: “You always
    need to give things time to work and be realistic about delivery,
    which doesn’t always suit political agendas. People thinking in
    different ways takes time; creating new relationships takes time,
    and what you are working with are incredibly complex bits of
    machinery.”

    In the past few years NCH has relaxed its formal ties to the
    Methodist Church. Tickell calls herself “a very spiritual person”,
    adding “I’ll leave it at that”, and seems taken by the Methodist
    statement of values.

    “When I applied, they were sent to me,” she says. “I didn’t
    realise, at first, that they were Methodist values. A value
    statement is important for any organisation, especially where you
    are now contracting for business like so many voluntaries. At the
    very least they help you not to make mistakes in the environment in
    which voluntary agencies work; they’re like a compass. What’s
    helpful for NCH is that these values are enduring.”

    The statement announcing her appointment spoke of NCH’s vision. Did
    she have a vision for NCH? She refers to the users being at the
    heart of the agency, with “real mechanisms for learning from, and
    listening to children and young people, and being able to
    demonstrate how we respond to what they and other stakeholders
    say”. She also talks about using NCH’s size to try out new ideas
    and looking at how to run an organisation across four nations.

    But that doesn’t entirely seem to answer the question about a
    vision for an organisation, the income of which has grown from
    £47m in 1994 to £199m in 10 years. The number of projects
    in the same period has risen from 215 to 500.
    Tickell thinks for a moment, smiles and says: “More of the same.”

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