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Reflections on bespoke support to tackle child exploitation: views from a local area

Bespoke Support Projects (BSPs) are time-limited programmes for local areas and partnerships who are working together to respond to child exploitation and extra-familial harm, with the aim of accelerating or adding value to existing strategic activity. Here we take a moment to share the experience of working with Tackling Child Exploitation (TCE) Support Programme from one local area.

Bespoke support is led by a member of the TCE Support Programme team and supported by one or more delivery partners who hold expertise in specific areas of work. A BSP is comprised of three phases; scoping, delivery and learning.

A coalition of partners from Nottingham City and Nottinghamshire County applied for a BSP in the autumn of 2020 with scoping commencing in November 2020. The aim was to establish a roadmap for integrating the two partnership’s responses to Child Exploitation and Extra Familial Harm.

With each BSP requiring a local area representative to act as a point of contact for the duration of the project, Rachel Miller, Group Manager for Early Help and Youth Justice Services in Nottinghamshire, became a partnership representative for Nottinghamshire and Nottingham BSP.

As the project team reached the end of the scoping phase, I (TCE Project Lead) posed the following questions to Rachel to explore what a Bespoke Support Project can offer a local area.


What has your experience of working on a BSP been like to date?

Rachel: ‘Positive! We have only had a handful of meetings with our TCE Project Lead, but it does already feel like we have moved our thinking forwards and have a better idea of what we want to achieve as a partnership.’

TCE’s experience of delivering BSP’s to date has informed the current approach of scoping, delivery and learning. A prolonged scoping phase is particularly beneficial for establishing a shared understanding and purpose for each project. The bespoke nature requires this time and consideration to fully define the change goal of the project and to explore the partnerships’ local context. The Expression of Interest process allows for engagement with partners at an early stage to scope the challenge they wish to pursue.

How, if at all, is the process different from other projects your local area has engaged with?

Rachel: ‘I have not previously been involved in a project with a completely independent “critical friend”. It’s been helpful to have someone who doesn’t know our systems or services come in to help us reflect on them – it’s a great way of challenging the “it’s just the way we do things around here” scenario.’

TCE has a ‘high support, high challenge, high expectation’ ethos; balancing the critical friend approach of challenge with a solution-focused approach to support. As an external partner, I can offer an approach, which thoughtfully and respectfully provides the critical challenge partnerships request of us. This approach can surface often-unseen systemic challenges on which a partnership can build wider local learning.

The bespoke nature of projects means that they can reflect and respond to local requirements. As a Project Lead, I take into consideration multiple factors within the scoping and design phases to enable a reflective space: which is considerate to the multiple layers of roles and responsibilities, which facilitates active listening amongst participants whilst also encouraging curiosity and appreciative enquiry.

What, if at all, has surprised you about the way that TCE has worked with the local area?

Rachel: ‘I have been surprised by the amount of thinking and reflection time our TCE Project Lead has given to our project between meetings with us. During meetings, she often poses helpful questions, listens and checks she’s understood us, but the special part is that a week later she has had time to ponder on what she’s heard. It has often been these reflections that have been the most poignant and challenging.’

TCE is a strength-based programme, which actively promotes partnerships to pause and reflect. This approach is strongly aligned with the principles of restorative practice. TCE aims to be a catalyst: working alongside a partnership to support and enable them to make change. Working with local partners, not on behalf of them, offering an approach that is reflective and values the partnership as experts within their local context.

As an external Project Lead, I am well placed to capture and play back learning and reflections, which are relevant to and for the partnership. Communication plays a vital role here. After a session with partners across the Nottinghamshire landscape, I ensured that there was an opportunity to reflect back and ‘sense check’ the content and detail of what was discussed and, crucially, what I understood to be an accurate reflection of the local partnership’s context. It is often these reflective opportunities which map the next steps for the BSP.

What would be your advice to local areas considering engaging in a BSP with TCE?

Rachel: ‘Have a small core team of partners/colleagues (5 or less!) who are bought into the concept and can drive the project forwards. You’ll want to have far more people than this involved overall, but you need a nucleus of key players to do some of the hard thinking between the bigger meetings and activities.’ 

We work with partnerships from across geographical and organisational boundaries. Partnerships can consist of local area representatives across a geographical area or networks of organisations who are working collectively to respond to child exploitation and extra-familial harm. It is the energy and appetite of the partnership representatives that progresses the work locally.

The delivery of a BSP can take many formats; sessions are designed around the objectives of the project and range from single agency meetings to larger and broader workshop style events. In Nottinghamshire, the project team began with a core group of local partners and from this we explored who to bring together in order to progress the project. The Nottinghamshire project team intentionally designed a BSP to allow for single and multi-agency reflection; holding both single agency conversations with key partners and multi-agency sessions. The intention of this was to ensure that the voice of all partners was captured and to provide ample space for the discussion and collaborative learning to occur.

How can a local area be best prepared to progress the work of a BSP?

Rachel: ‘The better you know yourselves, both your strengths and your weaknesses, the more you will get out of the programme. We went into the project able to talk in detail about what we were proud of, what was working well and what we knew needed improving. We were also self-aware as a partnership that although everyone was on board with the concept of change, there wasn’t agreement as to what that change would be and we stood to gain or lose differently. This didn’t need a resolution, but did need acknowledging.’ 

Within the Expression of Interest process, partnerships are asked to consider and actively discuss their local landscape; knowledge of the local area; the coalition of partners and the possible strengths and limitations of each. These considerations begin to form the BSP specification and are explored in detail during the scoping phase. The TCE Joining the Dots guiding principles offer support to local areas in applying this thinking.

Where has the TCE Support Programme added value to the partnership’s objectives/goal?

Rachel: ‘It’s a little early to say, but so far the main impact has been shaping the goal itself – helping us refine what it is we want to achieve and helping us be clear as to why.’

The purpose of the scoping stage is to add depth and understanding to the local challenge that the partnership wants to address. We began in Nottinghamshire by bringing together key partners to discuss their change goal; what challenge or problem were we trying to solve, and what does this solution afford to the partnership and young people locally?

What are the key behaviours that have enabled constructive conversations (if you think that this has occurred during the project so far)?

Rachel: ‘Willingness to be open and honest and sit with some discomfort (when listening to reflections of what’s been heard for example). Having the right people in the room for the big thinking/blue sky thinking moments.’

This reflective approach requires partnerships to work transparently and supportively together to explore the local context and unearth the challenges. In a fast-paced, challenging context like child exploitation, this space to pause and reflect can be the very thing that not only identifies the challenges but, crucially, how partners can work together to overcome them.


The TCE Support Programme is currently inviting expressions of interest for the next round of Bespoke Support Projects. Deadline Friday 12 March


*With thanks to Rachel Miller for sharing her reflections of engaging with myself and the TCE Support Programme on the Nottinghamshire Bespoke Support Project.

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