“It’s quite poignant for me. I had a lot of moves when I was younger. I remember moving in bin bags. But the kids don’t describe it as a placement, they call it home. They know they are cared for and that makes a big difference in these kids’ life chances.”
Helen Gillespie is describing how the support she and colleagues provide for children in Cumbria County Council’s residential homes compares to her own experience in care.
At the heart of this is making each home a home in the truest sense.
“We parent these children – it’s not going into an office,” says Helen, who is assistant manager at Cumbria’s four-bed home in Penrith. “You make their dinner, you help them with their homework, you take them to their football practice.”
Alongside the care, love and safety staff offer children – for whom these have often been lacking in their lives – is a lot of fun, against the backdrop of Cumbria’s unique countryside of lakes, mountains and beautiful coastline.
‘A job for someone who doesn’t like work’
“I jokingly refer it as the job for someone who doesn’t like work,” Helen adds. “It’s just having an alternative life for part of the week. You’re in the most beautiful part of the country. On Sunday we’re going to play crazy golf and eat ice cream. If people enjoy living and you want to show a child they can enjoy their life too, this is the place to do it, it’s amazing.”
You will find the same sentiment among staff in Cumbria’s edge of care service, which provides residential respite and outreach support to families in the county who are struggling and where there is a risk that children will otherwise be taken into care. Since Covid, the service has also been offering emergency placements to children who need them.
Residential support worker Grania Nicholson says: “I’ve done lots of jobs in my life and this doesn’t feel like work. There are jobs and there are vocations and that’s what it feels like. I get to do more leisure activities and walking and seeing places than I’ve ever done in my spare time.”
So, what is it that fosters this culture within the two services?
Celebrating every little win
First and foremost, it is the children and families that the services work with and the relationships they build with them.
Says Helen: “I’ve got a young girl sick, she bounced through the door and said, ‘Helen’s here’, and she gave me a hug. You’ve got two kids helping one member of staff cook and then two kids battling out with a member of staff over pool. Coming in and seeing these kids look happy and relaxed is amazing. When a child passes an exam, it’s like Christmas, we have cakes and a celebration. We celebrate the little wins for everyone. It’s knowing that these kids have come from the worst and they are playing Twister or Uno or playfighting like brother and sister – it’s really nice to see.”
The second is the opportunity to make a difference to their lives.
Grania, whose role is based in Kendall, says her job gives her the freedom to work creatively with families to help them resolve the challenges they face.
“We go in and do the things for them that they really need – we can really get into the nitty gritty,” she says.
“I’ve been working with a young person who was only 16 when he moved into supported housing, very lonely and isolated. I managed to secure funding for a bike for him, for music lessons. He’s got into college, living independently and that’s because of what we’ve been able to facilitate for him. It feels brilliant.”
With families, there can be initial concern when they hear the term ‘edge of care’. But she adds: “After a while they are ringing you and texting you and reaching out to you for support. If they are doing that, I feel we’re doing our job.”
Jamie Stanley, assistant manager in the edge of care service in Carlisle, agrees, saying that the trust that staff build up with young people and families, through focused direct work, improves outcomes and keeps children with their families.
The third factor is the team around you.
This was something that struck Grania when she joined the edge of care service in October.
“When you have a team handover, everyone thanks each other. If someone’s having a bad day or is not connecting with a kid or an incident has happened, everyone rallies round and tells them not to worry.”
Helen says it’s in the same in her home: “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we know when each other needs support and celebrate each other’s birthdays.”
Fourth is the wider support staff receive from their managers, senior leaders and the council more generally. This comes in various forms.
Supporting career progression
One is career progression. Not only are residential care staff funded to complete the level 3 qualification required by regulations, but they are also supported to achieve a level 4, says Helen. She is being funded to complete the level 5 qualification that is a requirement to become a registered manager. In all cases, time is set aside in staff rotas for study, she says.
“They are investing in you as a person,” Helen adds. “We have internal progression too: a lot of our assistant managers have been residential support workers, a lot of registered managers have been assistant managers. A registered manager role came up and the council talked to all the assistant managers about whether they wanted to apply.”
Helen joined Cumbria last October having previously worked for a private children’s home provider, and she says the investment in career development at the council is superior, as is the level of administrative support.
“I get to focus much more on the children and their experiences,” she says. “We don’t have to worry about things like how we’re fixing printers or the building because it’s all dealt with.”
Cumbria is also developing its children’s home and edge of care services through the adoption of No Wrong Door, an approach that involves placing a team around a young person who will stick with them through their journey in, or on the edges of, the care system.
A fifth factor is Cumbria itself. The home of the Lake District, encompassing 16 lakes, England’s 10 highest mountains and several forests, the county also boasts over 100 miles of coastline, the North Pennines and part of the Yorkshire Dales.
“Most people would love to work here – especially if you like mountains, lakes and the outdoors,” adds Grania, who is Cumbria born and bred.
Helen adds: “When my friends come on holiday to stay with me because my work-life balance here, they can’t believe it. On my days off I can explore the lakes, go kayaking and wild swimming and do all the things you do on holiday. I’m still pinching myself about it now.”
She says this fits particularly well with her shift patterns, which involve three or four days off a week.
So who would the roles suit?
In relation to edge of care, Jamie says: “It’s quite a versatile job. There’s a lot of variety. You can come with your own ideas. If you’ve got a creative way of working with families, you can do that.”
Helen offers a similar message in relation to residential care: “There’s no such thing as an average day. That’s the brilliance – and challenge – of the role.”
If you are interested in a role at Cumbria County Council, check out the latest vacancies here.