Research evidence (lots!) – √
Policy and practice guidance – √
Positive evaluation of existing practice – √
The practice experience and voices of workers – √
and, the lived experience and voices of young people – √
All saying the same thing, that encouraging, enabling and empowering looked after young people to ‘stay put’ in positive and stable care placements is fundamental to improving their lives into adulthood – and we’ve known this for years. And, with duties to provide Continuing Care for young people up to 21 now enshrined in law under Part 11 of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 you might think, pretty much, ‘great, it’ll happen, job done’. Why wouldn’t you?
I’ve just completed a piece of research for an MSc dissertation exploring some of the barriers and enablers to implementing Staying Put and continuing care in residential child care. I interviewed staff working in five children’s homes across three local authority areas and talked to some great people doing some fantastic work - people that saw themselves as champions for Staying Put. But, these dedicated and inspiring workers are doing this in spite of the system, rather than because of it.
I was able to capture a picture of a complex and often contradictory practice environment where workers were often unclear on what they felt they could, and couldn’t do, or say, to promote Staying Put practice. One of the main reasons was that none of the staff teams had any formal or structured briefing or training on the Staying Put national guidance - despite the fact that it was published in 2013, a full two years before; or on the detail and implications of Continuing Care. Ad hoc, informal chats at best, but nothing coherently delivered to the staff team, with limited or no opportunity for workers to sit down together, and importantly with their area team social work colleagues for example, and figure how best to embrace this collectively and make sure all young people get the chance to benefit from staying longer. This left workers lacking knowledge and clarity, feeling conflicted, and with a consequent impact on their confidence.
Acutely aware of the pressures on placements and resources some workers were concerned about getting a 'bit of heat from management' if they were too proactive in promoting the Staying Put and continuing care agenda. And workers expressed disquiet about just how much actual encouragement young people could receive, and how this could, or should, be formalised through reviews and planning meetings.
Of course, there are very real challenges for local authorities and other Corporate Parents, in terms of cuts and austerity measures - implementing policy in ideal circumstances can be challenging enough. But, some of the reasons suggested were not just concerns over finances and resources. Leadership, learning and development, culture and practice, and the importance of relationship-based practice all came through as key themes, both as blocks and potential enablers. All these themes are linked and important, but leadership, and learning and development go very much hand in hand. Workers want their leaders to be courageous and embrace the opportunity presented by the Staying Put and Continuing Care agenda, to radically change the landscape - and importantly the lives- of our care experienced young people. And that has to include encouraging, enabling and empowering those who care directly for children and young people. As one worker told me,
‘Imagine how good we’d be if we’d had all the knowledge’.
All of those interviewed championed the principles and practice of Staying Put and gave positive examples of young people being supported to stay longer. But can we expect full and meaningful implementation to happen without a coherent and coordinated implementation strategy at both local and national level? As Joseph Durlak highlights, when policies are poorly implemented, there’s a tendency to query the validity of the programme or intervention itself, rather than examining whether the flaw lies in its implementation. From the perspective of workers, closing the implementation gap appears linked more to political will, and the commitment of managers and decisions-makers to implement the changes needed. The demonstration of commitment, and the message of optimism and hope by the workers interviewed in my study must be matched by the actions of others if we are to turn the rhetoric into reality.