Durham County Council – Developing a Parent and Carer Panel

Background

As part of their funding under the Family Hubs and Start for Life Programme, Durham County Council was required to set up a Parent and Carer Panel (PCP), focusing on the Start for Life period. 

The programme guide outlines that PCPs “play a key role in designing and continuously improving family services, through regular feedback from families from different communities and with different needs”. Read the Department for Education guidance for more information on PCPs. 

The first step was to explore best practices, ensuring parents and carers were central in designing and continually improving the support in the family hubs. Durham consulted the Charlie Waller Trust, a children and young people’s mental health charity, for guidance on setting up a PCP. Following their recommendations, Durham could commit to true engagement and participation and gain the trust of local communities.

Developing a Parent and Carer Panel

Co-production was a newer approach to Durham’s work with families. Although they already carried out consultations and gathered feedback, they needed to develop a model of practice to co-design and co-produce the PCP. 

This included recruiting an Engagement and Participation lead (EPL). The post holder started in March 2023, ready to form the PCP in April and ensure its long-term sustainability and consistency. 

The post holder attended meetings before joining to understand the preparatory work and processes already in place. This stage was crucial to consider participants’ views, set expectations for the panel and explore the skills and qualities members – parents, carers, professionals and the EPL – need.

Who was involved?

A working group was created to ensure co-production from the start. This group brought together parents, carers and professionals from a wide range of partner agencies, particularly within Early Help. 

Professionals were encouraged to invite parents and carers to the meetings and accompany them if they need support. All participants played a key role in establishing the PCP’s core values and practice. 

Those who attended the working group included:  

  • early help practitioners 
  • schools 
  • family peer supporters 
  • nurseries 
  • parents and carers involved with Empowering Parents, Empowering Communities (EPEC) 
  • perinatal mental health workers
  • midwives 
  • health visitors
  • Communities Together Durham
  • Durham County Carers
  • NE Youth 

Practitioner and information workshops also discussed the PCP and shared information about family hubs services in the area.

Preparing to launch the PCP

Three working group focus meetings were held over a period of two months. These meetings produced the following list of recommendations for the PCP: 

Must-haves:  

  • representation of a wide variety of parenting experiences, including dads and male carers, foster carers, adoptive parents and kinship carers 
  • mix of parents/carers and professionals
  • short regular meetings in agreed places, both face to face and virtual, in varied venues 
  • Use of jargon-free language in meetings
  • established boundaries within a space that supports respectful, constructive, and realistic outcomes. 

Nice-to-haves: 

  • visits to family hubs 
  • social events for families, including more dad- and male carer-focused activities 
  • connections with other parent and carer led programs, such as EPEC,  
  • a WhatsApp Group for members
  • incentives and rewards for attendance, like biscuits at meetings or celebration events.

Must-avoids: 

  • participation taking place via one medium, such as only online 
  • only having one venue 
  • lack of boundaries and expectations 
  • lack of inclusion and appreciation 
  • favouring some participants’ opinions over others 
  • tokenistic gestures and abandoning commitments 

The group also created a list of the critical skills and qualities they wanted PCP members and professionals to demonstrate along with what their aspirations would be for their family hubs.  

These consultations helped shape the role descriptors and application forms for PCP members. These were shared with the working group again and amended based on participants’ feedback. For example, one member suggested rewriting the description of who should be included in the panel: 

“The parent and carer panel members should be a coherent group of people who represent and formalise the opinions of all ‘parents’. The ‘parent’ umbrella covers many groups and types of people”.

She was later thrilled to see the role descriptor featured her exact words. This demonstrates the value of the ‘you said, we did’ approach in cementing the values of co-production, creating trusting and respectful relationships. 

This early consultation work ensured the principles of the PCP were rooted in parent and carers’ lived experiences, and reflect an ethos of equality, social justice and empowerment.

Recruiting PCP members

Durham ran a recruitment campaign for PCP members on Facebook in March 2023. The drawback of this approach is that not everyone has access to Facebook, so recruitment reach was partly limited.  

Sixty parents and carers applied and 20 were selected using the co-produced recruitment and selection guidelines. Those who weren’t selected are still able to participate – all applicants were invited to join an e-network for wider consultation, providing feedback via ad-hoc surveys and polls. 

In future other communication options will be explored to reach a wider range of voices, including sharing PCP information with community organisations, schools and other partners. A quarterly family hubs newsletter and displays in family hubs will also include information about the PCPs.

Establishing and running the PCP

The PCP have met every month since April 2023. Members attend one out of two monthly meetings either in-person or online. 

Durham provides incentive payments to members for attending meetings. This motivates attendance, values contributors’ time and addresses the power imbalance between parents and professionals to foster co-production. 

Every monthly PCP meeting addresses ‘you said, we did’ feedback. Members say this feedback style helps them feel listened to and valued – that their input makes a real difference. 

In addition to the monthly PCP meeting, the working group met to explore the difficulties families face when navigating the neurodevelopmental pathway.

Keeping in touch with the panel

The PCP also includes four professionals who provide information about local services. All meetings have been well attended, and when parents and carers have been unable to attend, they’ve stayed engaged via emails and calls. 

After every meeting, the EPL emails the actions to members. They also reach out to panel members by phone and text for further discussions or wellbeing check-ins (where participants have given permission to be contacted). Panel members may also be emailed for their input on ad-hoc questions, surveys and polls.

Representing the PCP in other spaces

The PCP co-chairs attend the monthly County Durham Family Hub implementation group meetings. They are also involved in task and finish groups, such as developing and organising a stakeholder workshop. The PCP held a market stall at this workshop to talk to partners about the PCP and work being carried out in the family hubs. Members volunteered to plan the stall and delivered a presentation at the event about the personal impact of their work.

Several panel members are also engaging with Durham’s Empowering Parents Empowering Communities (EPEC) colleagues and are training to become Parent Group Leaders.

What has the impact been?

The PCP has ensured parents and carers voices are well represented in Durham’s services. Recent feedback from Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission reviews of the Start for Life Programme found the PCP to be “embedded, dynamic and inspirational”, and that ”parents feel listened to, and things are responded to [and] acted on quickly”. 

The PCP has run workshops reviewing these documents: 

  • ‘County Durham’s Partnership Approach to Early Help’  
  • A leaflet about the Start for Life programme, giving suggestions around content, images, and layout. 

Working alongside Harrogate and District NHS, it has also run workshops on: 

  • reviewing and developing the new Family Peer Supporter (parenting) roles 
  • healthy child clinics, discussing what they could look like, what they’d cover, staff requirements, times, locations and frequency. 
  • ‘Involving Dads and Male Carers’, consulting on how to help dads and male carers to feel more included and what they need from NHS services. 

 Other outcomes of the PCP include: 

  • consulting on the layout of family hubs registration forms
  • creating the Neurodevelopmental Pathway Working Group to review the diagnosis process and what a drop-in with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Information Advice and Support Service (SENDIASS) should look like
  • attending the official launch of Bishop Auckland Family Hub, speaking with MP Dame Andrea Leadsom and local councillors
  • attending the introduction to family hubs workshop, sharing thoughts around parenting groups, infant feeding, home learning and infant mental health
  • consulting on the ‘What’s On’ and ‘Perinatal Infant Mental Health’ leaflets
  • involvement in wider consultations such as Durham’s sexual health strategy. 

A summer celebration event connected PCP and EPEC group leaders and their families. The event gave participants the chance to network and learn from each other, and show appreciation for each other’s work. It was well attended and received positive feedback. 

Durham’s EPL has now been supporting other local authorities in establishing effective parent and carer panels.

What parents and carers said about their involvement with the PCP

“It’s wonderful to see how our suggestions are being taken on board and implemented in as little as a few weeks, so I can see what a difference we are making. It’s been great to work with people from all sorts of backgrounds too to hear varying opinions.” 

“One thing I’ve really enjoyed was seeing the new branding and launch information on social media pages. I felt quite proud to see something I’d been involved in creating finally out there in the public domain”.  

“It’s been adaptable to my needs which gives me assurances that the family hubs will be too. I’ve not felt pressured to attend or contribute when other things have come up, as often does with families.  

And I’ve especially enjoyed becoming familiar with the other parents on the panel”. 

“We’ve been consulted on a variety of topics with conversations well-structured meaning that the feedback we’re asked to provide is focused and you can genuinely see how our thoughts and experiences will help develop services. At each meeting it feels like there’s at least one ‘lightbulb’ moment where staff say I’d never really thought about that”. 

“I’m sure any parent can recall a time when they may have needed some advice or been concerned about their child. Being a PCP member is the ultimate chance to help local families receive the very best support available – by sharing our collective experiences & knowledge as parents ourselves. 

It’s been a fantastic experience – working with enthusiastic, positive staff to build a service families can lean and rely on. After such a successful launch of the project, I’m really excited to see what our dedicated team can achieve in the coming months”.  

“The PCP has embodied the ethos and has implemented the enhancement of co-production between professionals and non-professionals and services for the people of County Durham creating the beginning of equal partnerships. I feel each member’s opinion and contribution is received well and valued. As a collective we have always been resourceful, able to listen, analyse and produce completed tasks with understanding of the requirements”.  

“Members are empowered and are often offered additional opportunities to be able to share and learn experiences and knowledge in key areas. We are always briefed prior to our meetings and receive follow up emails or phone calls, I always feel part of the loop. We also receive wellness checks regularly which is greatly appreciated and beyond my expectations. Everything is kept on task within meetings, and we adhere to the agenda. I always feel exceptionally comfortable either at face to face meetings or on Teams”.

How were challenges overcome?

Due to the large administrative area, ensuring representation of all family types and cultures on the panel was challenging.

However, where possible Durham ensured a variety of families were represented, including foster carers, kinship carers, single parent families, home educators and working parents. To diversify further, a Community Connector attended a meeting on behalf of a Parent Support Group for minoritised families. In future, a local Gypsy Roma Traveller (GRT) worker plans to attend a meeting with a parent and carer representative from the GRT community.

Top tips

  • Involve parents and carers in designing the PCP from the start, shaping role descriptors, days and times of meeting. 
  • Use incentive payments – though most said that this was not a factor in applying, it values their contributions. 
  • Be flexible to shifting needs and commitments. Facilitators are currently reviewing days and times to fit with members’ working patterns.  
  • Consider tailoring recruitment towards seldom heard voices. In Durham, this included male parents and carers, and the GRT community.  
  • Offer wellbeing support to members as you would for the rest of the workforce. Check in with anyone who’s absent from or appears overwhelmed in meetings 
  • Feedback on the impact they have in shaping services. The ‘you said, we did’ format was particularly effective for Durham.

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