How can local authorities improve the life story work they provide to children and young people in their care, and what impact can that have on them as young adults?
Ben van Wagtendonk, Practice Leader/Service Manager for Cared-Experienced Children and Young People at Gateshead Council, talks about how the Creative Life Story Work approach – which combines activities facilitated by professional artists with therapeutic life story work – is changing things for staff, carers and children in Gateshead.
Why did you want to roll out a new approach to life story work in Gateshead?
Ultimately, my job is to try and make sure that children and young people in Gateshead are happy, safe and well cared-for. As part of that, I wanted to look at challenges we face around life story work: the varied quality of it and the importance of getting it right for the children and young people we work with.
When we were inspected by OFSTED in 2019 they quite rightly highlighted that our life story work was inconsistent and patchy. We want every child in Gateshead that we care for to have the opportunity to have really high quality life story work and that’s why it was important to me that we got involved with the Creative Life Story Work roll-out.
What do care-experienced young people and care-leavers tell you about their experience of life story work?
I’ve worked with children and young people for more than 20 years and the consistent message that you used to get from them was that they didn’t understand their own journey and story.
I’ll always remember going to a training event with some care-experienced young people and one of them showed me a book about a kitten that she’d adopted, with lots and lots of pictures of the kitten as it grew up, and in the house where it used to live. But she didn’t have anything like this about her own life. If we can do this for a kitten, why can’t we do it for a child? This really stayed with me and it’s the minimum we should offer children and young people.
Staff and carers in Gateshead have been learning about Creative Life Story Work and putting it into practice for nearly a year now. What impact have you seen on care-experienced children and young people so far?
We’ve had some amazing feedback from the children and young people and from their foster carers. What shines through is the way it’s really strengthening the relationships children have with the people who are caring for them, and helping them have difficult conversations about things that happened in the past.
Also, the creativity of the artists involved is just staggering. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some of the work they’ve done with children and I think they’re really magical experiences for the children and young people.
How will this approach change things for care-leavers?
Consistently, young people come back to us and ask for a copy of their records. So they’ll make a request and we’ll go through the documents with them.
But traditionally, we’ve not always written about people’s lives in a way that makes sense to them. Through Creative Life Story Work we’re really trying to change that and encourage our staff to write to children and young people in a language they understand. And this project also means that young people will have something tangible they can refer to, and that will travel with them.
We’ve received additional funding to include care-leavers as part of the evaluation process and that’s something I was really passionate about as that expert, experienced voice is really important.
I’m also involved in future planning – looking at how, once this project comes to an end, we’re still able to continue to offer children and young people the fantastic opportunities that have come out of it.
I’m optimistic that in the future this way of working will embed in our practice and we’ll be able to offer children and young people what they truly deserve: a good quality experience and a good understanding of their life history.