Dr Lucie Shuker highlights some key findings from the Alexi Project ‘Hub and Spoke’ evaluation report, published today – focusing on some of the learning that can be applied within voluntary/statutory partnerships. Lucie is the policy and dissemination lead within the Alexi Project team.
Today sees the launch of the Alexi Project final evaluation report (see press release). The Alexi Project was an £8m service development programme, funded by the Child Sexual Exploitation Funders’ Alliance (CSEFA). It was designed to rapidly increase the capacity and coverage of specialist, voluntary sector child sexual exploitation (CSE) services within England, using a ‘Hub and Spoke’ model. In this model, 16 voluntary sector organisations (the ‘hubs’) were funded to recruit and place CSE workers (‘spokes’) into their own or new neighbouring local authority areas. These spoke workers undertook individual casework and awareness raising with children and young people, and consultancy, and training with practitioners.
The evaluation used a realist approach; developing and testing a range of theories about how the introduction of this model into new areas might affect local safeguarding practice. A range of data was collected to test these theories: 276 interviews with stakeholders in the hub and spoke locations; 30 case studies exploring the impact of spoke workers and a range of quantitative data as well. After a robust process of developing and refining these theories, the evaluation team have published their final report.
The need for specialist services
The Alexi Project strategy intended to extend the reach of services to more children affected by CSE, and utilise voluntary sector expertise in this field to improve local safeguarding practice. The data collected by the evaluation team show that there is a clear need for these services, and demonstrate the positive impact they can have in reducing risk for children and young people affected by CSE. Sixteen services recruited 53 spoke workers, who were placed into 35 different local authorities over the three years of the evaluation. A total of 783 new cases were reported to the team between 2014-16, but we anticipate that when the services are fully established and working at capacity the 53 spoke workers will undertake casework with approximately 1,060 children and young people per year of the project.* For the 255 children and young people whose cases were closed during the evaluation period, 72% were recorded as being at lower risk compared to the initial assessment. There were various reasons that no reduction in risk was recorded for the remaining 28% , including the child or young person not engaging with the service, not being contactable, or moving away.
The report details the effectiveness of the Hub and Spoke model on a range of outcomes, but authors summarise the impact of services as follows.
The evaluation found that specialist voluntary sector workers within the Hub and Spoke programme have the capacity and expertise to address CSE, through both direct intervention with children and young people and through the training and support of other agencies and professionals. The direct work was effective in reducing risk for children and young people. There is clearly a need for specialist support services across England, particularly in places where services have not been provided before. (Key Messages, p.4)
Lessons for effective partnerships between the voluntary and statutory sectors
The two strategic aims of the new spoke services were to make specialist support available to children and young people in a series of new locations, and to improve the co-ordination, delivery and practice of local services responding to CSE – including the police, children’s services and other partner agencies. The report presents detailed analysis on the unique contribution of the voluntary sector to improving outcomes for children and young people (see ‘Outcome 5’ in the report), but in this post I will focus on the second aim: improving local safeguarding practice.
Multi-agency working is fundamental to good outcomes for children and young people, and co-located services have previously been identified as best-practice in local responses to CSE (DCSF; 2009; Jago et al., 2011). The evaluation gathered data on a range of different configurations of co-location and multi-agency working, providing valuable insights into how these partnerships can best function.
So here are three themes I have drawn out of the report, that will have relevance to any individual/lone voluntary CSE workers in co-located teams or host agencies.
1. Choosing a strategic location
Where the CSE worker is based affects how visible they are to particular partners, and therefore the kinds of referrals that come in. It also affects how young people perceive the service. A worker based in a police station might develop a great culture of information sharing with officers, but will have to find an alternative location to meet with young people one-to-one. Likewise, it will be hard for a CSE worker to do early intervention work, or stimulate referrals from under-represented demographic groups if they are primarily being handed known cases of CSE that meet the high thresholds of social care intervention. Of the five different location models identified in the research, outreach working and working from home were the least effective arrangements for spoke workers. These made them less visible to partners, presented fewer opportunities for sharing good practice and sometimes left workers feeling isolated and under-supported.
2. Walking the tightrope
One of the key mechanisms by which spoke workers helped to improve local safeguarding practice was ‘diffusion’. By working alongside their colleagues in statutory roles, the distinct approach of experienced voluntary sector CSE workers was modelled to others, helping to develop shared norms around how to respond to CSE. In order for this to work, of course, spokes had to maintain that distinct approach and not lose their identity as voluntary sector workers. They needed to be able to achieve a balance between developing close partnerships and shared norms, and retaining their own organisational culture and independence. If they lost that independence, they could lose the capacity to challenge their colleagues – a crucial function in multi-agency responses to CSE cases.
3. Being understood by funders and strategic partners
The experiences of different spoke workers revealed the significance of having strategic support. Spoke workers found it easier to become embedded in the service landscape in areas where their Hub was established, respected and (in some cases) had worked with the police on previous CSE investigations. Where this was not the case, it took time and persistence to develop relationships, and managers needed to recruit champions for the service within statutory agencies. Support for, and understanding of, the unique contribution of the voluntary sector in cases of CSE underpins more effective commissioning. The report highlights a problem with short-term contracts and funding arrangements which can undermine the methods used by these services to support young people effectively. These include relational practice, which can include longer intervention times. Funding for specialist services should enable them to remain independent, advocate for children and work with them over the longer term.
The evaluation provides a deep and rich analysis of the local contexts in which voluntary sector CSE workers are most likely to be effective, and will be important reading for commissioners, funders, managers and practitioners – in both statutory and voluntary settings. You can read the full report here, or a summary of the key messages.
*Most spoke workers have a caseload of between 10 and 12 children and young people at any one time, and work with around 20 per year.