Foster with North East – lessons so far from the North East Pathfinder
The countdown is on for the launch of a new regional Fostering Recruitment Hub, set to go live in the North East at the end of this month. The Mutual Ventures team visited the Pathfinder for the Department for Education’s Fostering Recruitment and Retention Programme to learn more about their journey to setting up their recruitment hub and what other local authority clusters should be thinking about in their early stages of planning their recruitment hubs.
As the pathfinder region, the North East have been working as a ‘cluster’ of authorities to implement the DfE’s Fostering Recruitment and Retention Programme. This aims to deliver end-to-end improvements in foster care services, as well as provide insight for scaling up activity across other LA clusters in 2023/24. Since January 2023, the North East have been working to implement all three strands of the programme: the creation of a recruitment hub – Foster with North East; the design and delivery of a regional fostering communications campaign; and expansion of the retention-focused Mockingbird model across the region.
Whilst it is still too early to assess any outcomes of the pathfinder, our visit to the North East Pathfinder at their base at Together for Children Sunderland provided valuable lessons from their journey and learning curve so far.
In particular, the North East Pathfinder shared a number of key insights that will be helpful for other participating local authority clusters who have just submitted their bids and are in the early stages of planning.
1. Timescales are challenging, so start planning early and be pragmatic.
Both the North East Pathfinder and local authority clusters find themselves facing tight timescales for implementing their Fostering Recruitment Hubs. Team members within the Pathfinder unanimously identified this as their key challenge. As a result, it is important that LA clusters start their planning in advance and maintain the momentum from the bid development process over the coming months.
Demanding timescales also necessitate a pragmatic approach. In the North East, the project team prioritised aspects of the recruitment hub that required immediate attention, such as identifying a suitable case management system and developing a collaboration agreement. At the same time, they acknowledged that other aspects would need to be deferred until closer to ‘go live’. They were also realistic about what could be achieved within the allotted time. For example, large scale procurement processes were also not feasible, leading the Pathfinder to seek a variation to an existing contract for the new case management system.
2. Strong relationships are crucial for ensuring engagement and problem solving.
In the context of a regional project of this scale, from the outset, investing in relationships and spending time with people involved in the recruitment hub are crucial for ensuring buy-in, building trust and are an important foundation for resolving issues. In the early stages, this involved one-to-one calls between the Project Manager and local authorities. When it came to resolving issues, as the Service Lead said to us:
“Picking up the phone always helped get things over the line.”
Pathfinder colleagues also emphasised the value of uniting around a shared goal:
“Everyone involved wants more foster carers for the children in the North East.”
3. Think about how you will engage foster carers in a meaningful way.
Local authority clusters need to be thinking about the role of foster carers in the development phase and in the recruitment hub itself. The North East Pathfinder ran focus groups with foster carers to understand their experience of the recruitment process and test marketing materials. The Pathfinder has also launched a ‘buddy scheme’ for prospective foster carers that will create links between them and existing foster carers in the North East at the beginning of the recruitment process.
Colleagues in the North East Pathfinder told us that it was challenging engaging with foster carers from beyond the lead authority due to difficulties engaging the right people at local authority level. This was alleviated by the introduction of a newsletter which provided drumbeat updates to the participating local authorities.
4. Clear messaging to ensure clarity on the programme parameters.
Making sure all local authorities are on the same page about the parameters of the programme set by the DfE will prevent confusion and unnecessary problems later on. An example of this experienced by the North East Pathfinder was the initial uncertainty among local authorities surrounding the communications strand of the programme, and whether local authorities could use their own marketing assets alongside those designed for the recruitment hub.
5. The board need to be people with the power and authority to make decisions.
Those sitting around the board table should be actively engaged in the programme and able to make decisions. In the North East, the governance structure evolved as they worked through implementation to ensure decisions could be made at the right level. Local authority clusters should challenge all members to ensure they have the right level of seniority and experience on the board, reflect on their proposed governance and be willing to adapt if it is not working.
6. Recognise the role of senior leadership.
Local authority clusters should think about what they need from senior leaders to help to shape transformation and ensure that expectations of the role are understood and acknowledged. Jill Colbert, Director of Children's Services in Sunderland and Chief Executive for Together for Children, has played a critical and active role in the progress of the North East Pathfinder. Utilising the region’s DCS network, Jill engaged directly with both them and council Chief Executives to push out a consistent message emphasising:
"Collaboration rather than competition."
Her efforts were pivotal in winning 'hearts and minds', cultivating a culture of positivity and inclusion across the region and securing commitment to the collaboration agreement.
7. Explore sustainability from the outset.
Whilst the North East recruitment hub is not yet live, the team are already exploring how its impact will be continued beyond the DfE funding. To ensure sustainability, local authority clusters will need to prove the value of their recruitment hub. The North East Pathfinder are in process of considering a future business case. Whilst the timescales will pose a challenge for proving impact, they plan to explore proxy indicators of success and consider wider benefits. For LA clusters in the early stages of planning, this means working with their legal teams to map out the decision-making processes that are required.
Using this time between bid submission and funding award to explore these questions and start planning will ensure local authority clusters participating in the Programme are able to hit the ground running in October and increase your chance of success.
Thank you to the North East Pathfinder for sharing their experience with us. Their journey in navigating the complexities of setting up a Fostering Recruitment Hub has shed light on the path ahead for others. LA clusters will be able to learn more about the North East Pathfinder’s experience of developing a fostering recruitment hub throughout the Programme, starting with a webinar on their experience of going live in mid-October.
To keep up to date with the programme and learning resources, visit our programme page here.