In July, Katharine Sacks-Jones was appointed chief executive of Become, the charity for children in care and care leavers, replacing Natasha Finlayson. She comes with a wealth of public policy experience, including three years advising parliamentarians, and joins Become at a time when the charity is drawing up a new five-year strategy.
There have been only four chief executives in Become’s 27-year history. Is it important to have a good grasp of the organisation’s heritage?
Yes. I was keen to learn about it, not because you don’t want things to change – we should always be evolving – but I think having a good understanding of where you come from and what the lessons are from the past including things that have not gone right is the basis for growing and looking to the future.
Since I’ve joined, I’ve met the two living previous chief executives and had the pleasure of meeting our founder’s nephew and hearing about her. As someone new to the sector, that’s helped me to get a sense of where we’ve come from to be better able to look to the future.
This is your second chief executive post – what qualities do you bring to the role?
Agenda, where I was before, was very small, but had a big impact. Regardless of size, it’s important to be ambitious. That sense of ambition is something I bring. I’m also an optimist. I’ve been shocked by how little has changed – the outcomes for children in care and care leavers are little better than they were when we were founded. The system is under tremendous pressure too – issues that have arisen like children being placed in unregistered homes and in settings a long way away have shocked me. When you’re in challenging funding and political times, it’s important to be optimistic you can change things and have a positive vision for what can be different.
The problems with placements are long-standing. How can you help change this?
Most people have been in the sector for a long time and that’s positive. The commitment and passion they have to dedicate their lives to this is amazing. Coming in fresh, as an outsider, puts you in a position when things are shocking to you and unacceptable and you can do things differently. You can also bring learning and knowledge from other sectors for how we might approach issues differently.
What experience from your previous role will be helpful at Become?
While at Agenda, I was struck by how many women I spoke to had been in care as children. As adults, they faced their own children being taken into care. These women desperately wanted to be good parents, but the system completely let them down from childhood into adulthood, and now their children were facing similar futures. It needn’t have been like that had we supported them earlier.
The women ended up in the criminal justice system, homeless or with mental health issues, but actually they are the same group of women so it doesn’t matter where they end up. What we need is complete systems change to start with the person. Part of our aim was to try to create that systems change and join up.
You can say the same of the care system. What is needed is a radical shake-up and reform that puts children at the heart, and that’s something we should be pressing for.
How will your strategy address these issues?
Last year, we helped 800 children and we want to support more by giving them the advice and guidance they need. As a small organisation working directly with children, you will only reach so many, so as well as the systems change, we want to amplify young people’s voices to get change nationally at a policy, practice and culture level.
Children have a voice, it’s just they aren’t listened to, so I see our role as giving a platform to their voices and views. We need to embrace the digital space to do that. It requires investment and thought, and for a lot of charities it doesn’t come top of their list. We need to think about how we use it to reach more children.
I also want us to be more of a campaigning organisation, and work more directly with professionals and organisations through training and consultancy. Soon we’ll set targets for this so we know if we’ve been successful.
Having a focus on impact is absolutely key. I don’t want us to do things because that’s what we’ve always done. We need to be looking at what change are we creating – whether that’s to individual lives, policy or practice.”
Can campaigning cut through during an election?
It can be very challenging and it will be even more so this time around. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we can find ways of working together, we’re going to be more effective in amplifying children’s voices, so I’m keen to build links across the sector.
We absolutely need more money, but we also need to look more radically at what needs to change. Scotland’s care review is interesting and there’s lessons for England.
We need a similar review of provision here – it needs to be radical, not just tinkering around the edges. At its heart must be the voices of children and young people and care-experienced adults.
KATHARINE SACKS-JONES CV
- July 2019 onwards – Chief executive, Become,
- 2015-2019 – Chief executive, Agenda
- 2012-2015 – Head of policy and campaigns, Crisis
- 2010-2012 – Head of policy, Crisis
- 2008-2010 – Policy manager, Crisis
- 2006-2008 – Head of public affairs, Working Links
- 2003-2005 – Parliamentary adviser to Glenda Jackson MP
- 2002-2003 – Parliamentary assistant to Tessa Jowell MP