Kent Autistic Trust works across the county, specifically assisting people on the autistic spectrum, including individuals who are the hardest to reach. Eschewing an institutionalised setting, they aim to provide care in the community and ensure that all the people they serve are able to lead fulfilling lives in ordinary settings. The trust places significant emphasis on retaining, empowering and promoting staff – a potential solution for the recruitment issues that are currently affecting the care sector. CEO Christine Edwards-Daem explains the genesis of the charity and how they hope to collaborate more with local authorities so that people on the spectrum can benefit from the trust’s specialist approach and services.
The charity was established in 1989 by a group of parents who found that there was a lack of support for people on the autistic spectrum after they left school. To try to remedy this, they decided to start a service for school leavers with specific needs and challenges related to autism. There was no provision outside an institutionalised setting, and we have always aimed to provide support within the community. Many of the parents are still board members, and there is a strong focus on our original aim of helping people to lead ordinary but fulfilling lives. This allows individuals who would usually be confined to more restrictive settings to receive support in community environments.
We provide supported living, residential care, day services and outreach and respite provisions, alongside a family support group. This group provides information and assistance to families with an autistic family member, especially those who do not qualify for funding. We endeavour to go out into communities across Kent, and our family support group now contacts over 5,000 people a year. This more general service expands on the assistance we provide to 100 more intensive cases and acts as a less formal equivalent to our main provision.
A focus on quality while retaining and supporting staff
Our ethos is grounded in a focus on those we serve. The trust is in an enviable position to have achieved three “outstanding” CQC ratings from our eight registered settings. The focus on ensuring that people have fulfilling lives turns out to be a powerful lever for retaining staff. People want to work in a setting where they can make a difference and where they know that senior management and the board truly care about the work they do and the people they support. This invisible but tangible golden thread runs throughout the organisation and is what pulls us together, blessing us with an amazing and committed workforce.
We are proud that our staff turnover is well below the national average, despite us being subjected to the same challenges as our competitors in the sector. We have been able to contest and argue against fee cuts, aggressive commissioning and ill-thought-out care packages. This has enabled us to continue to provide quality and to steer away from cutting corners and reducing opportunities. This has positively impacted the lives of the people we support because it promotes continuity of support, the retention of valuable information and intelligence, and many other positive feelings that a trust relationship brings. This has a powerful effect on the working conditions and level of job satisfaction that our staff enjoy, improving retention levels.
Staff don’t move to a competitor or to work at a supermarket because of wages. Staff leave because of job dissatisfaction and problematic relationships at work. If you address the latter and ensure that staff can keep making a difference and are supported to have good connections at work, you will tend to keep them.
We have 16 establishments across Kent. In two weeks, the senior management team and I will be visiting each of these and meeting everyone who works there. By meeting the front-line members of our organisation, we hope to gain a better picture of what works and what doesn’t. We aim to promote the input of all our employees, shaping our approaches and strategic focus. I have had experience on the front-line, having begun working for our service as a senior casual care worker 25 years ago. It is essential that all of our employees feel that they are part of our decision making process.
We also encourage staff to be ambitious to improve the lives of others, and this includes their colleagues. Instilling this communal spirit in our staff has been very effective, and this investment is reflected in the way our staff perform their roles.
The need to collaborate with local authorities and intelligent commissioning
Shrinking budgets and an increased demand for support are a disastrous combination and have caused commissioning styles to lack insight, focusing instead on cuts and quick savings. This fails to take into account the true costs of a person’s support with their unique requirements. These shortcuts are often resulting in more expensive interventions in the long term.
Post-Winterbourne, the government pledged to reduce inpatient numbers by 30-50 per cent, but the latest figures show that numbers have hardly been reduced and that the number of children in units has almost doubled. This illustrates the issue with failing to invest properly in community services and support. Ironically, the right support in the community is often cheaper than the wrong support in a hospital.
The good news is that some local authorities have seen the financial benefits of intelligent commissioning.
Commissioning styles should be more focused on achieving the safety and wellbeing of a person, allowing sensible discussion and allowing mutual professional respect to come to a suitable and cost-effective arrangement. Several local authorities have realised that the strict and stifling rules and contractual elements have destroyed innovation, creativity and a logical approach. We are looking forward to more creative and dynamic engagement with commissioners so that we can keep making a difference to people on the autistic spectrum and prevent hospital admissions. I hope that Theresa May’s pronouncement that austerity has ended comes to fruition, but it is impossible to know how things will pan out.
Looking forward, we do not anticipate major expansion, as this would likely lead to a compromise in the quality of our service. Instead, we will be responding to demand and will assist the hardest to reach people in our community. Our focus will also remain on our outstanding workforce; in doing so, we are confident that we will continue to thrive and prosper.