Transforming care experiences for young people in Sheffield

Words Siobhan Edwards

Innovation Unit Senior Associate Siobhan Edwards discusses Sheffield’s journey in adopting the No Wrong Door approach to Children’s Social Care.

Innovation is not always about creating something new. In fact, in the public sector, innovation is more often about taking what works in another context or place, and adapting it – what we, at Innovation Unit, call ‘adopt and adapt’.

One such project is the adoption and adaptation of North Yorkshire County Council’s ‘No Wrong Door’ (NWD) model of children’s social care by Sheffield City Council.

The journey began back in 2018 when Sheffield’s newly appointed Assistant Director for Children and Families Provider Services, Paul Dempsey, attended a NWD workshop in York run by North Yorkshire County Council and Innovation Unit. Inspired by what he heard about the focus on ‘finding a family’ for young people in and on the edge of care, and the hugely positive impact of the multi-agency NWD hub teams, Paul set about speaking with his Director and partner agencies, persuading them that Sheffield should adopt and adapt NWD. Paul managed to convince key decision makers that NWD could represent an ambitious and firm commitment to enhancing their service offer and improving life-chances and outcomes for adolescents with complex needs in Sheffield.

In Sheffield, as anywhere, innovative approaches to working with young people and their families required significant cultural change. This meant changes to ways of working together, language, and attitude to risk. It also involved asking difficult and challenging questions such as ‘Would this be good enough for my child?’. In order to achieve this, the Sheffield team worked intensively over an 18 month period, supported by their Innovation Coach from Innovation Unit, and colleagues from North Yorkshire County Council. 

As a part of this process, the team undertook a practice visit to North Yorkshire to see one of the NWD Hub’s in action, and to speak directly to the professionals working on the ground. The team were also supported to undertake ‘Deep Dive’ reflective sessions, facilitated by the Innovation Coach, in order to create in-depth case studies of ‘real’ young people in Sheffield. As part of this work, Sheffield also ran a focus group with young people to explore their experience of being in care in Sheffield. All of this helped Paul and his team think about what NWD in Sheffield needed to be like, to meet the needs of local young people and families.

In order to engage a wide range of partners in the design of the new service, the Innovation Coach worked with Paul’s team to facilitate a Theory of Change session. This involved Police and Health, and the voluntary sector in the city, as well as colleagues across Children’s Social Care (CSC). It focused on thinking about the ‘change we want to see’, including long-term outcomes for young people and their families. The process also explored and checked assumptions, and worked through the new activities and ways of working that would need to be in place to ensure success and generate impact in Sheffield through their own version of NWD, ‘Project Aspire’.

The first ‘Project Aspire’ Hub – a centre with multi-agency teams whose job is to meet the needs of young people and their families and carers through tailored, wrap-around support – opened in February 2019; the second opened in autumn 2019. 

Innovation Unit stayed closely engaged with Sheffield throughout this process, providing support and challenge around fidelity to the NWD model and ‘flex’ to meet local needs. In  January 2020, a final session worked with Sheffield’s CSC senior team to revisit the NWD model, the vision and values, exploring the leadership and governance required to ensure the innovation is embedded and sustained.

In Sheffield, the new emphasis on multi-disciplinary outreach work, engaging with young people and their families at home, and focusing on ‘progressing to permanence within a family or community’ has played a key role in halving the number of independent residential placements commissioned by the Council from 48 in July 2017 to 24 in September 2019. Of the young people Aspire has worked with on the edge of care, 90% have been supported to stay at home with their families. These achievements have already saved money and helped to ensure that more of Sheffield’s young people stay, and are cared for, in families in Sheffield. 

Numbers are important, as are ‘costs avoided’, but stories of lives changed are what really matter.

  • For one young person in Sheffield who had entered a temporary foster placement with the plan to move into a residential home, the support of Project Aspire outreach helped the carers to take the big decision to keep the young person on a permanent basis
  • When Project Aspire provided outreach ‘edge of care’ support to another young person, the multi-agency team were able to support the family to reduce conflict and tensions in the home, helping the mother to feel she could parent with greater confidence
  • For another young person, support from Project Aspire led to improved attendance and engagement in education. The young person’s relationship with their grandmother, who they live with, has also significantly improved. Engagement by the young person with mental health services (CAMHS) as part of the Hub has also led to reductions in self-harm, and improved mental health.

The embedding of innovation takes time, so it is still early days, but Project Aspire appears to be starting to have a transformational impact in Sheffield. It is producing system-wide cultural change through engagement at all levels from social care management to frontline practitioners and, crucially, to families.

Paul Dempsey summed up the project’s progress so far:

We are really pleased with how Aspire/NWD has progressed in Sheffield, but we know we have a way to go before we realise all the huge benefits we think it will deliver. It is a great model, and a really effective way to gather multi-agency services together around young people and their parents to provide the best support possible, all from the same place.”

Innovation Unit is a social enterprise based in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. We work internationally, applying disciplined approaches to develop new solutions and create impact at scale.