Features: November 1st, 2013

Stoke-on-Trent City Council has launched an initiative to improve the life chances of young carers. Council Leader, Mohamed Pervez, explains why giving children’s services team’s access to more information on these vulnerable children is key to its success.

Young carers often miss out on opportunities other children and young people enjoy, such as attending school regularly, socialising with friends and participating in healthy pastimes outside of the responsibilities they have at home.

According to the National Office for Statistics, there are around 244,000 registered carers in the UK who are under the age of 19. 23,000 of these are reportedly nine years old or younger.

The Children’s Society has carried out research recently that suggests one in 12 young carers in England spends more than 15 hours a week caring for a parent or sibling, and one in 20 miss school.
Local authorities and schools have an important role to play in ensuring every child reaches their full educational potential and benefits from living a happy, healthy life.

But is there more that can be done to ensure the vulnerable children who are caring for sick or disabled relatives are identified and provided with the support they need sooner?

Why IT matters

In Stoke, we serve a diverse population of 249,000. The area is made up of a number of geographical communities and we have an emphasis on delivering services locally to meet their needs.

We have introduced an initiative to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and young people in the area who are caring for family members. And a key element to this is the focus we place on effective information sharing.

Our Education Welfare Officers (EWO) are organised into regionally based teams. One of the things we have found incredibly useful is enabling them to enter and view information on the children and families they are in contact into a single, shared electronic record. This is proving to be a much more efficient way of working than each team managing a separate database.

The system – we use the One management information solution from Capita – enables our staff to log on and see details of a child’s home life that a social worker may have entered alongside the latest information drawn in from school databases, such as their attendance record for classes. They can also quickly find out which other local authority teams the family is in contact with. This gives staff a clearer picture of that child’s circumstances and helps them to put the right support in place more quickly.

Uncovering the facts

If an education welfare officer is concerned about a child’s unexplained absence from school, the system can reveal whether there is a sick or disabled relative at home and the team can also find out whether the family has been assigned a social worker.

Working in this way, our staff were able to spot that one 13-year-old boy, who we will call Liam, had been missing school. Looking at his record in more detail, they could see that his mother was receiving treatment for cancer. With more joined-up information available, they discovered that Liam had been missing lessons to attend hospital visits with her.

Without the ability for staff to see information from Liam’s school alongside details of his family life, he might previously have been flagged as a truant. But with a deeper understanding of his circumstances, much more informed decisions could be made around what support he required at home to prevent him from falling behind in school.

The authority and school have worked together to put a variety of measures in place to meet Liam’s needs. If he has to miss a class or fails to complete homework on time because he has been too busy caring for his mother, for example, his teachers are aware of the situation and can help him to catch up.

A classmate has been nominated to take notes for Liam when he cannot make it into lessons on time. In addition to this, regular day trips are arranged with other carers to give him a break and enable him to experience some of the opportunities other young people his age enjoy, such as visiting the countryside or taking part in sports.

Measures such as those put in place for Liam can lift a huge weight off the shoulders of a young carer. They provide an opportunity for carers to meet others in similar situations and help to ensure that these vulnerable young people get the support they need to achieve all they are capable of in life.

The information goldmine

We now have around 200 children’s services staff across multiple departments in Stoke logging on to our system, including children’s social care as well as teams providing support for teenaged parents and troubled families.

The benefit of doing this is that the more widely the system is used and updated by practitioners, the richer the goldmine of data available to them becomes. This, in turn, helps to ensure that more informed decisions can be made across the authority to make a difference.

We hold drop in sessions to offer young people advice on contraception and parenthood, for example. They are well attended but we are planning to look more closely at the information we have to understand the reasons why young people come along and how often they return. This will help us to ensure that the services we provide in these sessions continue to meet the changing needs of those young people who come into contact with them.

There are other areas of our work where having a broader range of information has been helpful too. We have been able to use a wide range of data to identify 239 families who are classed as ‘troubled’, according to the government criteria. And we are already working to ensure they get the support they need to turn their lives around.

Having a more holistic view of the lives of the most vulnerable children and families is critical to ensuring authorities understand and can respond more effectively to the often complex challenges they face.

This is not only essential to the success of our work with young carers, it also helps us to shape our wider children’s services provision to ensure that every child and family gets the right support at the right time in their lives.