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AU Review - August 2020 Update


When we opened our Short Break Service in 2009 we had around 350 members. Eleven years later we now have over 5,000 children and young people registered with us from across Suffolk, nearly 2000 of whom receive a financial award.

We are proud of how our service has grown, and we want to continue to meet more families' Short Break needs, but in order to continue to do this we recognised that we needed to review the current situation and adapt accordingly. With that in mind, over the first half of 2020 we spent some time looking at different areas of our service, to see what was working well, and whether there was anything we could improve. We asked for feedback from families and professionals to help us do this via some special events, our weekly eNews and direct emails to AU members.  

We looked at four key focus areas:

1. Our short break award assessment and allocation process

2. Our AU Holiday Lodges

3. Our Grant Funded Short Break Provision

4. Our website

You can view a brief infographic about each stage here, or for more in-depth information about the various stages of the review, please click the drop down menus below.

Screenshot 17

Our Short Break Assessment and Allocation Process

1. Why did we need to review this area?

  • At the start of the review we had 4000 members registered with the service
  • Of these, over 1900 were receiving a financial Award (Short Break / Short Break Plus)
  • Others received a Membership Award, giving them access to our service and many subsidised activities
  • The service continues to grow. In 2018/19, 1662 members received a financial Award, and by February 2020, this figure had grown to 1948.

Families currently apply for Awards via an online self-assessment tool. The system allocates points depending on answers to a range of questions about both the child and the parent carer's needs, and Awards are calculated based on this. There are currently three levels of Award, two of which come with a financial component (£500 or £1000 per year).

We needed to review and redesign this system because:

  • Families had told us they found the current one difficult to complete
  • We wanted to capture families' needs more accurately at the start, reducing the need for and frequency of appeals
  • We recognised that we need to better capture data on sensory needs and social, emotional and mental health needs
  • Analysis using other data available to us (e.g. education support levels, levels of certain benefits etc) showed that the level of Award currently being received was not always consistent with other indicators
  • We wanted to explore whether the current Awards were flexible enough to capture levels of need.

2. What have we done so far?

During the review we sent a series of consultations to families and professionals, and asked them to give us their feedback. In this area, we asked them:-

  • Was the enrolment and self-assessment tool easy to understand and use? Should it cover anything else?
  • Do you think the current levels of Award are right?
  • Is there anything else about our assessment process that you find confusing, or you think could be improved?

We analysed our Award data up to September 2019 and compared it to last year's data, to monitor the continued increased demand and see how consistent Award levels were.

We also consulted with other Local Authorities (LAs) to find out how they assessed families' short break needs and allocated personal budgets. 

3. What did we find out?

208 responses were received in total across all 4 areas. In response to this specific area, families told us they were generally happy with the current service, but suggested some changes to the assessment and allocation process:

What works well?

  • Families appreciated the support available over the phone and found the team helpful and friendly
  • The option of a personal budget gave them the flexibility to meet the needs of the whole family
  • Several associated positive effects for the whole family were noted, including better community inclusion and positive sibling relationships
  • The option to receive awards onto a pre-paid card remains popular.

What needs to improve?

  • The online self-assessment does not accurately capture all needs, particularly sensory needs and those associated with social, emotional and mental health
  • The offer generated at the end of the self-assessment process isn’t always accurate
  • Clearer guidance is needed about the service and how it works
  • We need to be clearer about what information we are asking for and what it is used for
  • Give more value to logging and keeping account info updated for membership offers. (e.g activity preferences and notifications)
  • Be clear about what we expect from people and what people can expect from us once they become members
  • Give members the option to upload receipts and images directly to their account from their mobile phones, as and when they receive them.
  • Some respondents felt the service needed to be promoted more widely to reach more families
  • Some respondents felt the enrolment form should be updated annually.

What else did we find out?

  • Other Local Authorities we contacted tended to only offer short breaks to children and young people with higher needs who were in receipt of services such as the Disabled Children's or Early Help Teams
  • Some Authorities use those other teams' assessments to determine their offer rather than having a specific assessment tool for short breaks 
  • Some LAs used community workers to carry out assessments
  • 50% of the LAs we consulted didn’t offer personal budgets to under 5’s (as other funding is available via government for this group)
  • Most LAs we consulted had fewer families accessing short break services than Suffolk.  



Our Holiday Lodges

Why did we need to review this area?

AU currently own, let and manage three holiday lodges on holiday parks in East Bergholt, Dunwich and Fritton. Whilst initially popular, in recent years these have been losing money.

We think this may be because:

  • New funding rules are less restrictive, so families are able to use their awards for other things
  • There has been an increase in the range of other accessible holidays available

As the lodges age, the cost of managing and maintaining them is also increasing.

What have we done so far? 

Prior to this review, we had tried various measures to increase bookings, including:

  • Marketing to Adult Care Services to use during term-time
  • Special offers to encourage repeat bookings
  • Marketing to external providers
  • Implementing an online booking system
  • Advertising through websites such as Airbnb
  • Last minute availability offers for council staff 

Although these had a positive effect on bookings, it did not raise them to a level where the lodges became financially sustainable.

During this consultation, we asked families to help us choose from five options:

Option A : Remain as is  (Continue with the current measures to increase bookings)

  • This would allow us to retain ownership of all three lodges
  • All three need refurbishment - this would put pressure on the overall AU budget
  • It is also likely to put more pressure on current staffing and result in further financial loss

Option B: Sell two lodges (East Bergholt and Dunwich) and invest in the third (Fritton)

  • Fritton is the largest and most popular lodge we own.
  • This option enables us to keep a local accessible holiday opportunity for families
  • Staffing costs associated with managing and maintaining three lodges would be reduced
  • Some sale proceeds could be used to invest in modernising the Fritton lodge
  • The remainder could be used to offer small capital grants to providers to develop and extend

Option C : Move the management of the lodges to an external provider

  • There is a risk that this would cost more than any additional income made by increased bookings

 Option D : Sell one lodge (East Bergholt) and keep two (Dunwich and Fritton)

  • This would raise some capital, though not as much as Option B
  • Staff management and maintenance costs would remain high
  • Occupancy during term time is likely to remain low

 Option E: Sell all three lodges

  • This creates the most capital income, and removes the financial risk and staffing issues
  • It would leave a gap for a local accessible holiday option for the families who do use the lodges

 What did we find out?

The consultation around the AU Lodges received a very poor response rate despite repeat direct emails to those who use them.  It was felt that this endorsed what we had suspected: namely that the lodges are no longer as well used or valued by AU members, whose needs have changed.

This view was also confirmed by a focus group which included parent carers, who felt the option to sell two lodges and keep the one at Fritton was the best way forward as long as the money from the sales could be reinvested in short break provision for children and young people.

Screenshot 164

Our Grant Funded Provision

Why did we need to review this area?

As well as short break awards paid directly to families, AU also work with activity providers to develop short break provision in Suffolk. We work with both smaller and larger partners in the following ways:

  • Giving grants to providers to run and develop activities
  • Awarding contracts to larger / longer-term providers
  • Supporting providers with their marketing and promotion
  • Business development support (such as help with external funding applications, advice on business growth and support with Quality Assurance processes).

As demand continues to grow, with associated increased costs, we want the provision we commission to continue to meet families' needs throughout Suffolk.

What have we done so far?

In this area of our consultation, we asked families a series of questions:

1. What sort of short break have you accessed in the past? Please tick all that apply.

  • Overnight stays
  • Holiday clubs
  • After school clubs
  • Whole family activities

2. What sort of short break would you be likely to access in the future?

3. Are there any types of provision you would never want to access?

4. Do you feel there is a good balance of activities on offer?

5. Are there any types of SEND that you do not think are currently catered for?

6. Any other services you think AU should be providing, or any other comments?

We also consulted other Local Authorities to find out how they deliver and commission short break provision.

What did we find out?

Families’ feedback confirmed that they continue to value our grant funded provision - many families have previously reported that these activities are the only ones they can access within their communities.

Weekend and school holiday clubs remained popular, being seen as a lifeline to give parent carers a break. Overnight breaks seemed less popular, as did after school clubs. This could be because many children and young people with SEND are transported to and from school.

All of the other Local Authorities we contacted commission a range of provision similar to Suffolk, i.e residential opportunities for families with complex needs and a range of other provisions such as holiday clubs and weekend clubs.

AU website

Our Website

Why did we need to review this area?

The AU website currently serves four purposes:

  • It acts as the "front door" into the AU Service for both families and activity providers
  • It provides a directory of short break activities, allowing providers to promote their activities online
  • It hosts the self assessment form that families fill out in order to apply for AU membership and awards
  • It holds the database from within which the financial awards are managed and allocated.

The current website was built in 2013, and over recent years has become increasingly out of date. Our capacity to update it is now limited due to advances in technology and compatibility issues, and so over the last 18 months, the AU team have already been working with Suffolk County Council's digital team and the Suffolk Parent Carer Network to review the website.

What have we done so far?

We have already done a lot of work with Suffolk County Council’s digital team to review the website. We have talked to parent carers, to young people and to providers and professionals about what they want from the website. From these conversations we have collected a number of user requirements (what people told us they want) to help us make a decision about the best system to use and what it needs to look like.

We looked at:-

  • All the processes we have in place to manage the AU Awards via the website
  • How we communicate to parent carers and providers
  • How parent carers join the service and complete the online self-assessment form
  • How people search and find activities on the website
  • How providers add their information to the website
  • How we process and manage payments for AU Awards
  • The reports that we need to run as a service

What did we find out?

Parent/Carers told us that the website needs to:

  • Have a focus on activities and membership
  • Give clear explanations of the service and what parents, carers, children and young people can expect
  • Consider other information and links to maximise sharing of information
  • Keep it’s inspiring brand/character
  • Be parent focused - doesn’t need games and content for children
  • Be mobile friendly
  • Work better when searching for activities nearby and on certain dates
  • Have more information on activities to help parents decide if an activity is suitable
  • Give more opportunities to encourage non funded providers to promote their activities on the site.
  • Be able to search activities by date, level of need, location (including map), public transport access, facilities, age appropriateness, level of supervision and residential options.

The majority of other Local Authorities we contacted promoted their short break service and activities on their Local Offer websites rather than having a dedicated website specifically for short breaks.

Screenshot 18

What we did with the results

The team looked carefully at the results and what we could do to develop the service to meet the needs, want and wishes of our families.

We had to consider:-

  • How we can continue to offer a short break service for increasing numbers of families within the budget available, keeping as close to the current model as possible. 
  • How we can change the way the website and online assessment works to give a better experience to both providers and families.
  • How we can better manage our processes and systems within the service with our current staffing team whilst the work increases.
  • How we can better capture a wider variety of needs and ensure a fair and accurate allocation of personal budgets.
  • How we can improve the way we communicate with families and make the service simpler to use and understand.

We then wrote a report for our Directorate Management Team who make certain decisions about the services within the council. The report explained the review, what we found out and what we recommended as the next steps.

The Directorate Management Team agreed the following recommendations:

  • That we now redesign the service.
  • That we sell two of the AU Lodges, keeping Fritton, and ask the council if we can keep the money from the sales to reinvest in universal (non-grant funded) provision.
  • That we move the website to better technological systems that we already have within the council, which will meet ours and our families’ needs.