Leicester Council regards itself as a family business, which is why its looked-after children are given a leg up to their future, as Anne Gulland discovers
When social care staff at Leicester Council put together their beacon award bid for improving the outcomes of children in care they realised it was the voice of the young people themselves which really mattered. With this in mind, a group of young people put together a DVD telling the story of their experience of being looked after by the council. It hit the right note as Leicester was one of only two winners, along with South Gloucestershire, of the beacon award from the Improvement and Development Agency.
Mark Fitzgerald, a project officer at the council and one of the authors of the beacon bid, says: “It was authentic. It was the true voice of young people in care.”
Leicester’s bid had three parts. The first was building links with private sector companies to get them to provide work experience placements for young people in care. The council itself was the focus of the second with all parts of the local authority – including services such as regeneration, housing and culture – being encouraged to recognise their role as corporate parents.
Fitzgerald says: “The way we look at it is that we regard the council as the family business and that these children are all our children. Why shouldn’t we, as the family business, prioritise them and give them a leg up?”
And the third, and perhaps most important part of the bid, was the participation of young people in service design and delivery. A key part of this was the Stand Up Speak Out group – about 17 looked-after young people who, as well as making the winning DVD, act as a sounding board, advocate for other looked-after young people and come up with ideas. The group started two years ago with about five or six members and since then has mushroomed.
Initially the group was seen as a way of consulting with children in care but this idea has been turned on its head, says Fitzgerald.
“In the past the problem with consultation was that the young people weren’t involved from the start. The professionals would put together the proposals and then consult the young people with these proposals. We have flipped that completely. Now we use the Stand Up Speak Out group as the source so our role as professionals is to implement their ideas and proposals,” he says.
The initiatives put into practice by the group include a foster carers’ profile. This idea came from the fact that young people might be moved to a foster carer they didn’t know at short notice. The profile – a simple piece of A4 paper – gives details of the foster carer and their family, lists their likes and dislikes and gives a picture of what it is like to live in their household. More than 90% of foster carers have now completed a profile.
“Just this small bit of information is enough to allay their fears,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s so simple – why didn’t we think of this before?”
While the Stand Up Speak Out group is a powerful force, looked-after young people are involved in service design at all levels. This is exemplified by Jon who designed his own flat. When a suitable foster placement couldn’t be found for Jon, who uses an electric wheelchair, a plan was made to create a flat for him within a children’s home. Jon was involved in the design and met planners, builders and architects. He suggested changes and contributed to the final look of the flat. He was able to test out the accessibility of the rooms and doorways as the accommodation was being built.
Jon is about to sit seven GCSEs and is an example of Leicester’s impressive record on getting looked-after children through education. In 2006-7 94% of children in the council’s care who were eligible sat at least one GCSE, compared to a national average of 66%, the highest rate in the country.
Jon says: “Before I was in care I didn’t use to like education. Being here has helped me develop goals and ambitions to aim forward.”
Wes Cuell, director of services for young people and children at the NSPCC, which sponsored the beacon award, says commitment from the senior managers is the key to Leicester’s success.
“What impressed me with Leicester was that there was a strong management lead. You don’t get significant change without people from the top driving it.”
More about the Beacon Scheme