Using digital to support the thousands of young people leaving social care in England

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett June 27, 2019
While it can currently be a bumpy ride for young people leaving England’s social care system, a new app developed by NGO Social Finance to give individuals more of a voice in decisions made about their future is currently being piloted by seven local authorities

Image of a teenager on their phone

It is not easy for young people leaving the social care system in England. The state acts as their corporate parent until the age of 18, providing them with a range of services to help navigate life’s challenges.

But when they come into their majority, everything changes overnight as they officially become ‘adults’ and much of their previous support network disappears. However, as Emma McGowan, head of the Leaving Well project at Social Finance, a non-profit organisation that partners with government, the social care sector and finance community to tackle social problems, says:

We know that young people in care are way more likely to suffer from mental health issues. Some 40% of 19-to-21 year olds also end up not being in education, employment or training, so it affects their chances in life and their outcomes are not nearly as good as their peers who didn’t go through the system. There are a wide variety of reasons for this and it’s a really thorny issue, but one of them is the fact that the budgets local authorities have for looking after young people have been slashed dramatically.

In a bid to help change the experience of those leaving the care system, Social Finance set up the ‘Leaving Well’ initiative in 2014, which is funded through its Impact Incubator partnership with a range of charitable foundations. The team also got together with Social Finance’s Digital Labs to see if there was a suitable “digital response” to the issue.

The aim here was to design a new system built from users’ point of view, which would also take existing legislation and the current lack of available resources into consideration too.

An initial finding of research into the area identified there were more stakeholder groups than simply young people though. These additional stakeholders comprise personal advisors, which include social workers, who spend huge amounts of time on administrative activities, not least because of poor legacy systems, as well as local authority managers and leaders. Their particular challenge is a lack of data that is good enough to make service-based decisions due to a current focus on what is happening today rather than why.

As for the situation with young people themselves, the problem there, says McGowan, is that:

They don’t feel as if they have a voice. Instead they feel as if decisions are made for them, not with them, and they’re not at the heart of it. In other words, they always feel as if something is being done to them, not with them.

Improving aspirations and engagement

To try and address this scenario, the Leaving Well team has developed a cloud-based app that runs on Amazon Web Services with the help of Pivotal Act, the software and service vendor’s international development and social impact consultancy. It provided Social Finance with transferrable product design support due to a lack of in-house skills.

The goal was to enable young people both to express their opinions and feelings and input directly into their personal Pathway Plan, which is a live assessment that is completed every six months. The objective was to ensure each individual’s support network was in a position to provide them with more targeted help. To this end, the app provides young people with scrollable pages containing various step-by-step actions to help them achieve the goals laid out in their Plan. McGowan explains:

It’s aspirational and the focus is on goals and progression and journey rather than endlessly repeating their story. The ideal experience is one in which youngsters and support workers collaborate both inside and outside of meetings. So for the first time, we’re providing them with the tools to enable them to express what they’re feeling and what they want for their own lives. For example, they can say to their support worker ‘I want to travel somewhere so how do I do it?’ which means tasking someone to help rather than just having someone take them. It might seem like a small thing, but it’s often an ordeal, so the app can help make the process easier.

Support workers, meanwhile, can also log onto the app to check to see how individuals are feeling, before responding digitally, tagging actions, or arranging meetings if they believe someone is moving into crisis. As McGowan points out:

The aim is not to take away from the relationship but to make it stronger and more informed.

The local council element of the system is still in the design and build phase though, with Social Finance currently working with a total of seven public authorities (PAs) to get it right.

One of these PAs is Doncaster Children’s Trust, which became involved after an Ofsted report suggested that its Pathway Plans were too long, wordy and not “young-people-friendly” enough, which meant they were not always keen to engage. Kelly Bidmead, team manager of the Trust’s Inspiring Futures unit, which is a dedicated service for care leavers, says:

We thought the initiative would be a great way to improve engagement and introduce a new way of working with young people that could lead to better outcomes. We wanted to ensure they were engaging in the process of developing their Pathway Plan to make it more meaningful and make them more accountable moving forward. It’s a map of their future and articulates their aspirations and goals so they can realise their ambitions, which means it’s important.

The benefits of interaction

Bidmead’s entire team, which consists of eight social workers and nine personal advisors, have been using the app since January this year. She points out:

The fact that it’s digital allows the young person as well as the social worker to provide input, so it’s much more interactive. Also Pathway Plans are live documents, but because this is an app rather than paper, young people can relate to it much more, it’s searchable and you’re less likely to lose it.

Early data from the Trust’s Workforce Development audit has indicated that the majority of digital Plans “give a clear sense of a young person’s lived experience” as well as a sense of inclusion and ownership of the planning process that was not present before. As Bidmead says:

Interaction appears to be more meaningful. We’ve not got the statistics yet for how many more people are engaging, but we know it’s a lot. But it’s also not just about numbers – it’s about interactions being more in-depth, and the better quality of information we’re getting too.

Social Finance has been working with its local authority partners on the alpha phase of the initiative for the last 12 months and is now evaluating the results to understand how successful it has been so far. Initial findings indicate that personal advisors are freeing up as much as 30% of their time on admin tasks that they can now spend with the young people in their care. McGowan says:

Over the last few decades, care has become quite transactional, but it’s known that the more time you can spend with young people, the less likely they are to go into crisis. So we want to know if this tool can help stop that by freeing up more time and providing better information.

A second version of the app based on the design work undertaken with Pivotal Act is due for imminent release, but for all elements of the system to be fully up and running, it is expected to take another five months of work.

While the software is currently available to local council partners on a free-of-charge basis, this situation will change when Impact Incubator funding runs out at the end of this year. The aim at that point will be to grow the number of public authorities involved in the scheme as well as create an active service community to share experiences and lessons learned.

My take

Ensuring that the 11,000 young people who leave England’s state care system every year have the support they need to thrive and flourish is not easy, particularly when ‘austerity’ has slashed local authority budgets to the bone. As a result, initiatives, such as the Social Finance app, are very important to try and fill gaps in a sector under huge pressure. Just as vital is finding ways to use technology cleverly to free people up to do the human relationship-building work that really counts and, ultimately, makes the biggest difference to social care outcomes.