Have the Staff Stopped Smiling? Conference Review and Presentations

Real Life Options is celebrating 20 years of supporting people who have learning disabilities and as part of these celebrations they are sponsoring a series of events jointly hosted by Association for Real Change and Real Life Options over the next few months.

Have the Staff Stopped Smiling? was the first of a series of events and took place on 19 November 2012 in London, looking at the burning issues affecting employment and training in the sector and the challenges that undoubtedly lay ahead.  With speakers from organisations including Skills for Care, RLO and Association for Real Change it was a stimulating, challenging and engaging day. Here’s a review of the day.

Photo: RLO Cake

Cake and Champagne

Cake and Champagne aren’t the usual items to find on the programme of a Conference, I think you’ll agree, but for the 60 or so delegates who attended the joint ‘Have the Staff Stopped Smiling’ conference on the 19 November 2012 it was exactly what they were able to find – well, the opportunity to eat a slice of lovely birthday cake and the chance to win a bottle of Champagne. Such extravagance wasn’t without purpose however, as this proved a fitting way to celebrate RLO’s 20 years of supporting people who have a learning disability and to mark the first of six events jointly held by RLO and the Association for Real Change.

Opening proceedings with a warm welcome was Brian Hutchinson, CEO of RLO, who outlined not only the celebratory nature of the event, but also the more serious note of exploring issues relating to employment and training in the social care workforce, including training and development, and e-learning.

Following Brian was Jacqueline Bell, Association for Real Change’s new CEO, whose presentation entitled ‘100 members in 100 days’ outlined the Survey she undertook to find out about the pressing issues facing ARC members in the current economic climate, what was gleaned and how this will shape the Association’s future strategy.

Mind The Gap

Sharon Allen, CEO of Skills for Care, was the invited speaker before morning break and she highlighted the need for staff to have the right support to gain the necessary skills and knowledge to work in a person-centred way; and for leaders and managers to have the right skill set to help them champion the core values of the care sector to ensure that people with a learning disability receive the respect and dignity they are entitled to. Citing the awful events at Winterbourne View as an example of the disastrous effects poor leadership and management can lead to, Sharon called for the sector to support the leaders of the future and engender a learning environment in every organisation. As part of their response, Sharon outlined how Skills for Care were revamping the Managers Induction Standards and developing Higher Apprenticeships in conjunction with universities.

Sharon also acknowledged the changes affecting the social care workforce (in particular the move to personalisation and the increasing number of Personal Assistants – around 20% of the workforce) and the uphill struggle the sector will face in filling vacancies. As evidence Sharon presented some quite staggering figures:

  • at present there are up to 60,000 vacancies in any one day,
  • NMDS figures show that by 2025 this is set to increase to 325,000
  • If personalisation continues apace, these could reach as many as 3 million.

In response, Skills for Care have updated their tool kits for PAs, now have a seat on the Think Local Act Personal Boards and work in partnership with steering groups of individual employers and representatives from local and central government. Sharon urged delegates to sign up to ‘Making It Real’ and sign ‘I can do’ statements to make their commitment to personalisation real.

Furthermore, Sharon appealed for help with increasing apprenticeships – to a level of 100,000 over the next 3 years, encouraging the practice of promoting social care work through care ambassadors and continue (or start) to complete the NMDS to help improve the knowledge about the sector and influence Department of Health policy.

The Mind The Gap session was brought to a close by Sharon reiterating the need to seek the views and input of carers and the need to build a qualified, motivated and properly trained workforce.

Making Change Happen

Following a mid morning break and an energising caffeine hit was a further energy boost courtesy of Sue Harris Associates and their Making Change Happen session. This lively and entertaining talk began by asking, “What does good training look like?” The amusing response, which set the tone for the rest of the talk was “anything that doesn’t result in death.”

Photo: Sue HarrisSue outlined the Making Change Happen training her organisation had undertaken with RLO, involving Self-advocates and support workers. Emphasis during the training was squarely on the importance on team work, having a person-centred approach and encouraging flexibility by having the participants drive the day. Allowing people to relate the training back to their own personal experiences, particularly as parents, was significant in ensuring its success. Some of the sessions Sue Harris highlighted were centred around employment, diversity, rights and communication. The importance of communication was perfectly related with an amusing anecdote of a training session involving Chinese whispers and Brian Hutchinson (as the fall guy). Indeed, Sharon stressed that involving senior managers in the training was also seen as key to making it successful.

Overall, the session was a bright and sparkling highlight to the morning, relaying the necessity of training but also the importance of being able to inject fun into proceedings and thinking ‘out of the box’.


Julie Robinson from St Anne’s carried the morning to its finale with a discussion about E-learning and her organisation’s experiences in implementing a change in approach to learning and development. Julie’s discussion was an insightful examination of what had worked well – applying e-learning methods to knowledge based learning; what had proved helpful – linking in the approach to other learning systems; and outlining the benefits – consistency, better quality control and a reduction in travel costs. Julie also admitted that adopting an e-learning approach wasn’t without its challenges, namely patchy access to technology, a loss of interaction between participants and the fact that it was a different approach to what they had been used to. However, such challenges were not insurmountable and St Anne’s were continuing to look further ahead; acknowledging that the workforce of the future – young people coming out of school – would be looking for yet further developments (webinars, pod casts, apps, etc). St Annes were currently working on ways of integrating technology and e-learning into their Induction programme.

Image: Real Change ChallengesReal Change Challenges

Following lunch, and the chance to network with delegates over a slice of the aforementioned cake (mmm, nice cake!) was a second presentation by Jacqui Bell, this time about the Real Change Challenges.

Following the Association for Real Change’s away day the organisation had agreed that the focus to our work was to improve the quality of life for people with a learning disability. Integral to this focus was challenging the way we worked and to demonstrate Association for REAL CHANGE is really that – an association of change. Jacqui outlined that 2013 would see the launch of a range of Real Change Challenges. These challenges will be for ARC, our members and the providers we work with. We will be asking the sector to challenge themselves to make a change or to showcase positive changes they have already made. The first area the Association will be looking at will be around older people and asking how to improve the quality of life for people with learning disabilities as they grow old. Further details can be found at our Real Change Challenges website.

It’s a Jigsaw

The final talk before the group work sessions came from Tony Pearsons, Director of HR and Acting Director of Operations at RLO, who used his allotted slot to present how RLO had approached issues around staffing and training, in particular decisions that had been made around outsourcing learning and training to a specialist provider, moves towards harmonising terms and conditions for a number of RLO staff and the recent corporate restructure. The session was very well received and proved a useful springboard for the audience to ask questions around similar issues facing their own organisations.


Photo: Have the staff stopped smiling workshopsThe remainder of the afternoon was focused around roundtable group work sessions, with delegates splitting into smaller groups to explore in greater detail some of the issues that had been raised during the day’s talks. Delegates were able to call on the first hand experience of the speakers, and also share some of their own concerns, problems and successes. Judging by the prodigious flip chart sheets of notes produced this was another successful session. Having concluded the note taking all of the delegates were then asked to reconvene and explore all of the key issues that had been raised and mark what they saw as priorities.

To keep the momentum of the day moving forward, delegates were also asked to complete a pledge card, promising to address one highlighted issue in their own workplace. RLO and Association for Real Change Staff will be following up on these pledge cards to see how any work has progressed.

The overall feeling from the day was very positive and feedback certainly reinforced this. The input from delegates and speakers would suggest that the issues of maintaining and developing a well qualified workforce are high on people’s agendas and that thanks to the conference some of those issues had been explored and shared and maybe some inroads into addressing them achieved.

So, have the Staff Stopped Smiling?

Judging by the events of the day it would seem, that despite the tough times, there are certainly reasons to continue to smile…. and even reasons, if Sue Harris has anything to do with it, to laugh. There are possibly even reasons to celebrate.

And what better way to celebrate than with Champagne…. For one lucky delegate that was certainly the case – heading home with a bottle of Moet won on the raffle.

Download the presentations from the day:

Further conferences:

  • The planning work has already begun for the next two conferences in the series, which are expected to take place in Coventry in March 2013, and York in April 2013. Watch this space for further information as it becomes available!