Sally Philips’s recent documentary about parenting a child with Down’s Syndrome explored the ethics of antenatal testing, but I couldn’t help being drawn to the back story; the families’ experiences of public services.
Earlier this year I managed a small charity, School for Parents, on an interim basis. It provides weekly classes for children with disabilities, teaching groups the skills others take for granted such as moving, communicating and eating. During this time Dr Anne Emerson of the University of Nottingham conducted research to understand the experiences of the parents. This provided a valuable opportunity to explore how families we worked with encountered public policy and services, and to appreciate the role university research can play.
What did I learn?
Firstly, we could radically improve services with minimal investment because so much comes down to attitude. Like Sally Phillips I heard jaw dropping tales, such as new mothers being assured they could ‘probably go on to have a normal child’. Dr Emerson’s research crystallized the challenge – receiving a diagnosis triggers responses akin to trauma, yet this isn’t recognised in staff training. As most blunders may be poorly articulated compassion, it seems only fair to equip front line staff with this knowledge and appropriate responses. This would improve the immediate experience of parents and build a critical platform of trust.
Secondly, public policy seems to be caught in a continual quest for innovation, but so many solutions are already known. Dr Emerson found references to the ‘whole family’ impacts dating back to the 1950s. The ‘asks’ – respect, joined up services, timely help – that are common to so many excluded groups I work with, are also core themes of current public policy. Having made these connections, I hope further research helps us find ways to close this gap between policy and practice.
Finally, I encountered countless funding opportunities perpetuating a desire for the ‘new’ which risked failing to sustain ‘what works’. Some commissioners are striving to increase opportunities for voluntary and community organisations through capacity building, encouraging consortia or emphasising social value. Research can provide charities with the vital evidence of impact needed to secure these contracts. Yet for some very small charities, research will inevitably show their impact comes from being outside ‘the system’. Despite the unpredictable nature of generous gifts and kind donors, this may lead them to conclude that steering clear of public sector contracts is worth it for the benefits that independence brings.
Sometimes research brings fresh insights and new ideas. At other times it is just as helpful to be reminded that human values underpin our public services, and these should be encouraged and celebrated.
Claire Baxter is the director of Richmond Baxter Ltd, a consultancy which works with charities, social enterprises and public agencies to improve services and outcomes. She specialises in strategic planning and partnership building, and has a passion for getting the voices of ‘real people’ into local and national policy. Prior to setting up her own business, Claire worked in the local government, education and voluntary sectors for 20 years. She contributes to postgraduate teaching at INLOGOV.