Family mentors take on early years support

Using parents as volunteers in early years settings saves money and reaches more families in need, a project in Reading has shown

“I wanted to do something like social work – but obviously I didn’t want all the paperwork,” says Tracey Hawkins, to laughter, at the Sure Start children’s centre in Whitley, an area of south Reading where deprivation levels are high. “I just wanted to help out families. I don’t want something like Baby P to happen here. Whitley’s got a bit of a bad name, so I’d like to help it. We’re strong people and I think we should all come together to help it.”

Hawkins, 42, is one of a first tranche of 17 volunteers to be trained in Reading in a drive to dramatically alter the face of early years services, using peer mentors and the resources of the community to shift the balance of power away from professionals towards families. It is part of a “radical efficiency” programme run by the Innovation Unit, a not-for-profit social enterprise, funded by Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) which aims to help public services offer “better” outcomes for lower costs.

As the spending cuts of last year loomed, six localities signed up to take part in the unit’s Transforming Early Years project. They were set the goal of saving 30% on traditional service models, while reaching more families and those most in need.

It sounds implausible, but an independently evaluated report of the work, shows it is set to deliver savings across the six projects of between 13% and 38% in the first year, increasing in years two and three. And an average of 120% more families are due to be reached, bringing the overall unit cost per family down by between 30% and 81%.

In Reading, the redesigned service at Whitley will cost 27% less. While the centre actively supported 187 children in 2009/10, it is on target to increase that number to 367 in 2011/12.

The programme started with early years professionals and parent volunteers conducting in-depth interviews with families. For Melani Oliver, the council’s head of extended services, some of the findings were difficult. “We thought some families felt they weren’t in charge of their lives; they came back and told us they did have that control, but they wanted more control over services,” she says.

Some interviewees complained that they had been put off parenting support classes by the feeling that attending suggested you had a problem. They said they wanted this kind of support delivered by peers, not professionals.

Mother-of-five Sarah has been meeting volunteer Nicola Campling at the Whitley centre once a week for messy play sessions with her two-year-old.

“It’s like we’re learning along together,” she explains. “It’s a shared experience.” She would not have attended the centre without Campling’s support, despite having done so in the past. “Since I’ve got older my confidence has gone down a bit … But Nicky’s taken me along and showed me what’s what. I enjoy it.”

The interviews also revealed the unrecognised resources of families themselves. None of the 32 families interviewed – with 92 children between them – had ever paid for childcare, relying instead on family members when they went out to work. In future, the council will aim to teach those family members about early years development, rather than trying to get all youngsters into the children’s centre.

In Whitley, volunteers will form four tiers of support: welcoming “meeter and greeters”; buddies, who will be based at the centre; mentors and “saints”, who will be able to visit families in their homes without professionals. Eventually, new systems of working will be brought in across Reading’s 13 children’s centres using 60 volunteers.

Is this just a ploy to get people to work for free so that staff numbers can be slashed? John Ennis, lead councillor for education and children’s services in Reading borough council’s minority Labour administration, insists not. The reality of the cuts it is having to make – £19m across all services this financial year and another £14m next year – means things have to be done differently, and staff numbers may end up falling, he says, but the main driver is creating better services that reach more people, earlier, for the same amount of money.

Sarah Gillinson, the Innovation Unit’s programme lead on the scheme, says: “If we said we were going to do exactly the same things as before but with volunteers, I think that would be completely legitimate to criticise. But if the question you’re asking is: what do people want from their lives and how can we work together to construct a solution and build on their strengths? – people want to get involved.”

In Whitley, the first wave of trainees, all local mothers or grandmothers, are now reaching the buddy level, accompanying family workers on home visits to build relationships with parents and then spend time with them at the centre.

The benefits they are gaining from volunteering are notable, the group agrees. None of them works, though several are keen to return to employment. The centre aims to support 50% of volunteers to go into education, employment or training. None feels they should be paid.

“You find your own personal identity again – there’s a sense of achievement,” says Julia Spence. Hawkins likes it so much she thinks might eventually try to get qualified in the field: “I’m not just a mum or a nan, I’m doing something I want to do.”