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Health and Wellbeing

Community Skills in Action

'When you first asked me about skills I said I had none because I never did very well at school. But then you asked me how long I'd lived here and what I know about my neighbourhood then I realised I have lots of skills, yes lots.'

The UK charity Skills for Care started its work on community skills development, as a way of building community capacity or social capital, in 2008 as the seventh principle in the principles of workforce redesign. This stated that if social care was to be successful in developing personalisation, commissioners would need to develop a better understanding of the skills that exist in a local community.

In 2009 Skills for Care commissioned 'Only a Footstep Away' as an evidence review of the role of skills development in building community capacity. We published this report in 2010, and made a commitment to test out in action the theory that a more explicit focus on 'skills' as part of community development might lead to different outcomes for people with social care or support needs living in a particular community. In late 2010 we published a 'practical guide to neighborhood workforce planning and community skills development' and established 14 pilot sites to test our model. 

We found that creating an explicit conversation about skills as part of a community development model had profound and multiplying effects. For example, a food bank that couldn't understand why people removed the fresh vegetables from their allocations and didn't take them home found out through skills analysis that most of the people who used the food bank did not know how to cook fresh vegetables. So they taught people how to cook and saw improved nutrition. Indeed, people used all the food they were given and saw the food bank as a positive socialisation opportunity. As a matter of fact, two people fell in love with cooking and went on to take a vocational course in cooking at their local college.

We found that the model could work in multiple settings. For example, a provider could use the model to assess the skills of local businesses in enabling people with learning disabilities to access their services (whether that was banking, transport or retail). If the provider developed training for these local businesses, people using care and support services felt more able to use local businesses unaided, and felt more integrated in their community. The model has been used by a shire county to develop community cohesion, by a parish council to set up a skills bank, by a village residents association, and a borough council as part of a public health campaign. The model has been adopted in affluent areas such as a Royal London Borough - and in less affluent areas with high unemployment. In each case a focus on skills in its broadest sense has brought people together to share and develop those skills in many different ways.

In 2012 we published an independent evaluation of the community skills approach. We dropped the concept of 'neighbourhood workforce planning' as we found the term 'community skills' can capture the whole model, which is essentially: 

Talk to people about what skills they have and what skills they need to learn or develop. Then give people the opportunity to acquire those skills.

Skills can refer to a range of knowledge and experience - from knowing where not to go at night in a particular neighbourhood, to knowing how to fix a shed, or being able to talk to people, to formal or practical skills - or knowing what an 'app' is!  Skills do not have to be about formal training or qualifications.

Everyone has skills - everyone can share those skills with others.

So what are we doing now? 

We are working with some of the original sites to ask - 'what value comes from the community skills approach? How do we realise that value?'  Again, we are defining value more broadly than just in economic terms and looking instead at how value is added on multiple dimensions.

We have also set up two new work streams building on the earlier community skills programme. These new work streams are focused on the concept of 'Skills Around the Person', with one work stream applying this in an end of life context.  'Skills Around the Person' requires a model that explores what happens if social care assessment or person centered planning are substituted with by an explicit conversation about skills. Finding out what skills the person needing support has and needs to learn. Finding out what skills people (paid and unpaid) have and need to learn to support themselves. Then, doing something to address those skills needs for new skills and seeing what difference they make to people's lives.

In the early days projects testing this work for us have begun to share reflections and experience. The projects are saying things like: 

  • We need to change the assessment model we've brought in. It doesn't work.
  • People get this?
  • This is real culture change.
  • Is it honestly that simple? 

Perhaps the best example how to put 'Skills Around the Person' in practice is the situation when people come to end of their lives. People at the end of their lives have skills to offer others and skills they need to learn. What if a person at the end of their life needs assertive skills to make sure they can remain in control of the decision-making about their care and support? By having an explicit conversation about the skills that people need and coaching them to get those skills will they and those around them be better able to stay at home as long as possible and have a good death?  As with the previous programme of work, the 'Skills Around the Person' model is being independently evaluated and will report in spring 2014. 

Jim Thomas, Programme Head, Workforce Innovation, Skills for Care.
Melanie Henwood OBE, Health & Social Care Consultant.


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