In my new role as Cabinet member for children, education and young people’s services, I am regularly asked what my priority is.
Giving every child and young person an equal opportunity to reach their potential is always my answer. Giving them a voice. Protecting them from bullying or exploitation.
Always receives a nod of approval, but then the more challenging follow-on: how will I achieve this?
My response: Partnerships.
I believe passionately that Oxfordshire CC is a trailblazer when it comes to partnership working. We have a vision, but only achieved by collaborating with talented experts, community groups and charities.
Already, since I started my new Cabinet post in early October, I have witnessed the positive difference achieved by placing young people right at the centre of these partnerships. In Oxfordshire, this is no gesture. I am determined that they really will have a say.
Voices, rights and responsibilities
Oxfordshire CC has been proactive for many years in ensuring the voices, rights and responsibilities of children and young people are central to what we do. We use a variety of innovative approaches to involve them. Youth voice and youth participation are built into service delivery across children’s services.
There are consultation and engagement opportunities for children and young people. These currently include the Children in Care Council; Sounding Boards that provides a forum for young people to provide feedback on relevant topics, and service-specific consultations.
We also bring together small groups, focusing on their personal difficulties through adolescence. Issues such as wellbeing, and ongoing disruptions that began during the pandemic.
Our youth workers are a crucial part of the partnership; their support vital to help this approach succeed. They use their expertise to organise bespoke programmes of support, enabling young people to grow and develop socially and emotionally, to access wider help around them in their communities.
The young person is an equal partner in the work. Their engagement is voluntary, with both parties learning, growing, and changing.
Through this partnership, youth workers will help young people to build life skills, develop healthy relationships and make decisions that are right for them.
A youth offer steering group, consisting of voluntary sector, district councils across Oxfordshire, public health, and police representation, has been developed. The aim is to coordinate the county’s youth offer and ensure that children have access to positive activities and support at various levels. Here we see multiple partners, working together for a common goal.
It does not end there. We are also supported by local parish councils, wherever possible, to increase these community activities.
Schools have a pivotal role too. School health nurses, community support groups and mental health specialists to assist staff in schools, simplifying a way to access support by the introduction of a triage system.
In schools, we aim to deescalate issues and concerns and keep young people in education. It is working. We are seeing attendance of disengaged young people improve and uptake of local positive activities increasing.
We have put a youth work presence into our Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) to provide onward signposting to local community provision if appropriate or to ensure that we become involved at the earliest sign of need.
We are also investing in apprenticeships. The county council has offered £50,000 of its unspent apprenticeship levy to the voluntary sector to support ten members of staff through their Level 3 youth work apprenticeship.
Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)
Partnerships are particularly important when it comes improving provisions for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). To do this, we are developing a joint action plan, involving parents and carers of young people with SEND, as well as with other support and advocacy organisations.
Template for others
Aren’t all councils doing this I hear you say? Yes, to an extent, but what I am discovering as I talk to our dedicated children services team and the young people themselves is that Oxfordshire has taken partnership to a whole new level.
Bring all this together, I believe we are now the template for others to follow.
Children and young people are at the heart of this partnership approach. They coproduce it. They have a voice, supported by youth workers, schools and teachers, experts in other councils, the police, MASH. And our investment in helping key workers in the voluntary sector to get the qualifications and experience they need to have the greatest positive impact.
I will never be complacent. Oxfordshire CC and our partners will constantly review, adapt, and look to improve, because it is a shared vision. To give every child the very best start in life.
Cllr John Howson is Oxfordshire CC’s Cabinet member for children, education and young people’s services