The UK is currently living under extremely challenging circumstances. And while much of the UK has had to stop in its tracks due to COVID-19, a number of vital public services simply have to keep delivering. Fostering is one example of public service work that has had to find ways to carry on delivering through the upheaval caused by the pandemic.
Given this backdrop, last week’s announcement by Y Lab that Flintshire CC has been awarded £1.15m in innovation funding to roll out the Mockingbird Family Model (MFM) to support foster families is very welcome news.
MFM is a new way of delivering foster care across the county of Flintshire, North Wales. The Mockingbird programme creates an ‘extended family’, called a constellation, of six to 10 fostering families who are supported by an experienced foster carer. The programme is shown to improve the stability of fostering placements and strengthen relationships between carers, children and young people, fostering services and birth families.
The extended family model enables sleepovers and short breaks, peer support, regular joint planning and training, and social activities between the families.
During lockdown, the network aspect of the work has proven invaluable to those who are part of the first constellation. Although, of course, a lot of the practical support has had to stop, the families involved have found new ways to communicate in order to stay in touch and offer support to each other.
Jenny, the hub carer in the network, said: ‘We now have the support of others who understand the issues that we face as foster carers. It has been difficult during the lockdown, but we’ve been keeping in touch via phone calls, emails, and our successful WhatsApp group.
‘We’ve been swapping recipes, useful apps and websites for homeschooling. We’ve been supporting each other with everything from potty training tips to children struggling to adapt to the new routine, and just making sure that we all feel supported.’
Five constellations are planned for Flintshire by the end of 2022, directly supporting up to 80 young people and 50 fostering households. In 2017/2018, £7.8m was spent meeting the needs of looked after children in Flintshire; 65% of this was spent on out of county placements for 15% of the county’s looked after children.
This work is a great example of the kind of citizen-centred service improvement that can be stimulated by innovative finance methods offered by programmes such as Innovate to Save (I2S). Flintshire has been provided interest-free loan funding of £1.15m from the I2S programme, funded by Welsh Government, and run by Y Lab, to roll out MFM. I2S aims to both stimulate innovation in public services and save money, and the MFM has the potential to save £2.4m over six years by avoiding costs for the local authority.
By investing to save, the model is projected to make savings by avoiding high management costs incurred by external foster placements and by retaining a strong pool of local authority foster carers. These savings allow the local authority to repay the loan, helping to recycle funds through the public service ecosystem.
Prior to drawing down the loan, Flintshire researched how best to set up MFM locally supported by £30,000 of I2S grant funding and wrap-around support. One of Innovate to Save’s advantages is that it offers a route to organisations from the research and development of an idea through to implementation.
Flintshire’s project is proof that with the right time and space, new, resilient, ways of working can be put in place.
During the recovery phase from COVID-19 funds will be scarce. Perhaps now, more than ever is the time to experiment with innovative funding models that nurture, support and fund promising ideas to flourish as we move out of these unsettling times.
Angharad Dalton is the manager for Nesta's Innovate to Save programme