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Case study taken from:
Learning Labs - Evaluation of the Pilot Projects 
University College Northampton

Birmingham - Linkway

Linkway is the title given to one of three linked components of the services for adults with learning difficulties provided by the local authority's Social Services department. It is physically based in a traditional day care centre notwithstanding that its purpose and activities have changed in recent years. Historically such centres provided opportunities for socialising and day care for citizens with learning difficulties and offers some respite for their carers.

Over recent years the service has evolved from drop-in day centre provision into the placement of service users in community based activities. These may be sedentary leisure activities such as pottery or art classes in an education centre or other activities such as visits to museums, art galleries and cinemas. Preparation for employment through FE college courses and a number of community based enterprises is also part of the remit. Around 30 users, however, continue to 'drop-in' to the Linkway centre when not engaged in community based activities.

There is a manager and deputy manager and, in total, around thirty-eight members of staff.

Linkway has thirty-eight service users on its books and seven members of staff caring for their needs and dealing with placements. The age range is exceptionally wide from teenagers to users and carers in their 80's. Over the years little work has been done in identifying and satisfying the needs of elderly users as, historically, people with learning difficulties were not expected to live so long, and there is a continuing need for some traditional forms of day care.

This wide range of provision is threatened in that the local authority has decided that the day care centre used by Linkway is to be re-located in October 2001. Users and carers have been assured that there will continue to be a service at least as good as that currently in place.

 

Setting up the learning lab

The service operated a consultation process with staff, service users and their carers entitled

'Changeover' which was designed to explore and improve the quality and responsiveness of day care. However, with the shift in emphasis away from building based day care and a degree of inertia relating to the Changeover initiative, the manager and deputy manager were looking for something to restart and accelerate the consultation process. Having seen an article about learning labs in an internal staff bulletin, the deputy manager initiated discussions with local authorityís management development team on how best to respond to the needs of service users. Those discussions were reported to the weekly meeting of staff at Linkway and it was agreed to set up a half day exploratory lab involving all seven frontline staff and managers.

How the learning lab worked

The participants began the first away day by setting out some ground rules. These included joint ownership of the process and outcomes, respect for all views, a recognition that the lab should encourage participation and an acceptance of responsibility for, and the sharing of, any tasks emerging from the lab.

The first day produced a series of flip charts listing responses to the various questions raised. These were posted on the office wall in the centre as a working document to be regularly consulted in order to measure progress made.

This first half day session was felt to have been a success and it was agreed to schedule three 'away days', in February, May and June.

The staff decided at their weekly meeting that the focus for the second session of the lab in May would be the effect on users of the closure of the centre in October. The third lab in June would have as its main tasks; the measurement of progress in meeting the users needs during the transitional period and the consideration of further action to be taken to ensure user and domestic carer satisfaction following relocation in October.

Impact on staff

There was an sense of empowerment resulting from the work of the lab. One member of the team observed that "when decisions are taken by the council it is difficult for us to do anything about it but if we can meet as a team, give expression to our views which are then recorded in some way it helps morale. You can work through anything if morale is kept up".

Barriers and problems

A major concern for all participants was that of time. "If labs are to be an ongoing feature we need to have the staffing that allows us to meet from time to time" observed one member of the lab. The manager felt that "managers should be given time and space to develop this process and make learning labs part and parcel of our everyday work. There is also a need for management training to raise their awareness of learning labs".

Resistance to labs might also arise from a fear of change. "People don't like change and could therefore have a negative attitude to labs if they feel they are going to challenge existing ways of doing things but if they are involved from the beginning you can overcome that fear".

Achievements of the Learning Lab

Most participants were concerned to ensure that the lab was not a one off initiative and had some continuity: "It's no good having a learning lab now and another happening in six months with nothing in between. It needs to be ongoing until solutions are found and implemented".

It was a beneficial experience for one member who said "I've been to lots of meetings in the past and thought 'what a waste of time' but I came out of this session in a really positive frame of mind".

" What was really good about the lab was that we were encouraged to contribute our knowledge and experience to a problem we would all have to face" said another.

The information about relocation of the service was perceived as useful and empowering. "The ability to challenge management decisions is crucial in ensuring the right decisions are made" said one member.

Contacts for further information

Birmingham City Council web site

Tarik Chawdry Birmingham City Council

Steve Trivett Birmingham City Council

Last Updated: 05/2002

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