A system-wide approach to innovation

Asset-based children's services


Social care systems are made for keeping young children safe, but don’t give teenagers in care or on the edge of care what they need to build a stable future. This is detrimental to these young people’s futures and the public purse. Wigan Council wants all young people to become confident, resilient adults and for each one to grow and develop in a family-based setting.

Reflecting the ambitions and values of the Wigan Deal, their system-wide transformation programme builds on the assets of people and communities, is grounded in knowledge of evidence-based innovation, and offers the promise to improve outcomes and reduce costs.

The problem

⅓ of teenagers in care

have special educational needs and 1/2 experience mental and emotional ill-health

39% of those entering care

each year nationally are aged 11 or older, yet care systems are mostly designed for young children

More than ¼ of children in care

in Wigan are currently living in families or in residential settings outside of Wigan borough

“We have a relentless ambition to improve outcomes for children in need of help and protection and for those who enter care. And we are designing a model that will achieve these better outcomes whilst reducing costs” James Winterbottom

Teenagers who are in care, or at risk of coming into care, face different and more complex challenges than younger children. These young people often end up in expensive out of area placements, only to return ‘home’ at 18 with few skills and opportunities ahead of them.

These are the young people that services find it most challenging to help.


Whilst Wigan Council has relatively low numbers of children in care, they want to do better for them, and their vision is for all young people in Wigan to become confident, resilient adults. They want each one to feel they belong in a place they can call home, have trusting relationships, and feel connected to people and places that matter to them.

To achieve this bold vision the council has committed to a significant transformation programme in Children’s Services, the ‘Deal for Children and Young People’, which is underpinned by an ‘asset-based’ model.

For Wigan’s looked after children and edge of care services, this means a radical shift towards:

  • Always putting young people’s strengths and aspirations at the forefront, so this is what drives professional practice.
  • Striving for young people to live in family settings, inspired by the mantra ‘no child is unfosterable’.
  • Always planning with adulthood in mind, asking – What will life for these children be like at 21, 30 or 50 years?
  • Being positive about managing risk for the individual rather than trying to eliminate risk for the organisation, through shared decision making across agencies.


Wigan are innovating right across their children’s services system – intentionally adapting and adopting a range of innovative models that are grounded in a wealth of evidence-based practice and which offer the promise of both improving outcomes and reducing costs. Taking their own existing innovation projects – ACT and SHARE – as a starting point, the Wigan team have drawn inspiration from the wider DfE Innovation Programme, including from approaches like Pause, Signs of Safety, Mockingbird Family Model and No Wrong Door. In doing so, Wigan are creating a systematic approach to applying learning from others to their local context.


Impact of existing innovations

86% of young people

remained out of the care system (No Wrong Door)

£600,000 saved

annually (No Wrong Door)

£1.6m of potential savings

through reduced and avoided accommodation costs as more young people remain at home, or in stable placements in communities (ACT)

Only 11% of children

(2 out of 19) judged to be at risk of becoming looked after (LAC) by the local authority became LAC (SHARE)

You can read more about the evidence of impact in the formal evaluation reports for each innovation: Wigan’s ACT project, Wigan’s SHARE project and North Yorkshire’s No Wrong Door project.


Since May 2017, Innovation Unit has been supporting Wigan to develop a new residential and edge of care service that is inspired by North Yorkshire County Council’s No Wrong Door, and builds from their own ACT and Share innovations. The No Wrong Door approach also aligns with Wigan’s broader public service reform work through its integrated place-based delivery.

Together, we are modelling an approach to transformation that brings together evidence-based practice and meaningful co-design with young people, families, partners, leaders and frontline staff. The aim is to increase permanence, reduce the number of young people who come into care, prevent placements from breaking down and support those who are in out of borough settings to come back to Wigan.

The new service is rethinking the role of residential care by developing a ‘hub’ approach focused on early intervention and prevention. Crucially, this ‘hub’ is a team, a nexus of relationships, rather than a physical place. The multi-agency, co-located team sits under one management structure, alongside a close network of partnership services, to provide support to young people and the staff that work with them – responding to both therapeutic and professional needs. One worker is assigned to each young person – someone who will stick by them no matter what –  and two-thirds of the support for young people will happen via outreach in the communities where young people wish to live.

  • Wigan workshop
  • Wigan workshop


Wigan’s remodelling of the social care system requires strong and effective leadership, and the creation of new partnership arrangements, including with health, housing, CAMHS and education.

It’s not about moving the furniture. Although the new service will involve a number of changes within team structures, partnerships and staff roles, the real shifts that need to happen are in culture and practice.

To enable this, Innovation Unit’s approach has been to:

Start with young peoples’ experiences  – We designed the service directly out of a deep understanding of the real experiences of a small cohort of 8 young people who professionals see as most challenging and in some cases have lost hope for. This meant running a series of support planning workshops with a wide group of professionals to design new, creative support plans for these young people and then using these to test the flexibility, ambition and reach of the new service.

After taking part in these sessions, staff have started taking more creative, aspirational approaches to supporting young people, showing a shift in culture and practice before the service has even launched. For example, a young boy who could have been sent to an out of area placement was instead placed with a teacher from his school. 

Construct a Theory of Change – Starting with a collective understanding of the ambition for young people (and the people that support them) and mapping the opportunities and barriers in the current system, a theory of change approach gave Wigan colleagues a clear map and logic model for moving from where they are now to where they need to get to.

Learn from what works – Bringing together Wigan’s two existing innovation projects, best practice from across Wigan and learning from innovations elsewhere, the new service is rooted in a strong evidence base. In particular, there is close alignment with No Wrong Door’s values  – the importance of family-based care, focusing on the relationships around the young person, and striving towards decision making across agencies that embodies high ambitions for the child, into adulthood.

Co-design at all levels – All elements of the new service have been co-designed with key stakeholders on the ground in Wigan; from the vision and principles, to the details of the job roles and team structures. Building in opportunities to engage and inspire staff is a critical part of the work. Some of the fora developed to feed into this work include: a dedicated weekly young people’s steering group, bi-weekly steering groups involving front line staff, managers and senior leaders, large scale events including partner agencies, a dedicated programme board and engagement with foster carers.

The slogan ‘we, us, together’ has come out of the young people’s steering group as well as a wealth of insights and input into the shape of the approach going forward.

Build a culture change roadmapAs the new approach moves into implementation, Innovation Unit will play a supporting role in learning and development, building in new rituals and spaces for staff, managers and leaders to gather data and feedback, reflect on new insights, and continue to innovate in order to achieve the best outcomes for young people.

“We need to be much more courageous to support our young people.” Steering group member

A set of core principles will help to frame the way things are done and will underpin day to day decisions and actions. They include:

  • Know the young person including insights about their story and identity: We really talk and listen to the young person and find out what is important to them. We keep a close relationship with birth parents, carers and foster carers. If it is important to the young person, then it is important to us.  
  • Treat young people as if they are your own: We make sure we develop bespoke solutions to meet their needs and in doing so make sure they feel they loved.
  • Stickability to young people: Our young people experience the same worker across different moves and across different parts of the service. We offer to stay with our young people even after they leave care.

The work so far

3 new hub teams

by March 2017 (with the first launching at the end of January)

30 innovation and codesign workshops

held between April and December 2017, with another 10 to go. Teams are now starting to apply our methodology to other services ripe for transformation (e.g. fostering).

300 people engaged in the project

including council staff members, partners, young people and carers