coproduction and participation

What’s the point of a Parent Carer Forum?

I’m Nan Cooper, I’m the Chairperson of Bolton Parent Carers, and I have been known to ask myself that question from time to time, luckily not too often otherwise I certainly wouldn’t carry on doing what I do. However I do know that for some parents and carers who see what’s going on in the world of SEND, both locally and nationally, it does beg the question ‘What’s the point of a parent carer forum?’


Read on and I’ll explain what the point is of having us around

What is a Parent Carer Forum?

PCF’s have been around for over a decade in one form or another, however in 2014, when the Children’s & Families Act was passed in parliament, the voice of parents and carers was seen as a fundamental aspect of the 2014 SEND Reforms. Parent Carer Forums are therefore mentioned in the SEND Code of Practice:

Parent Carer Forums are representative local groups of parents and carers of children and young people with disabilities who work alongside local authorities, education, health and other service providers to ensure the services they plan, commission, deliver and monitor meet the needs of children and families. Parent Carer Forums have been established in most local areas and local authorities are actively encouraged to work with them.

At this time the Department for Education started a grant scheme to enable PCF’s to be able to fund parent participation activities; this scheme is administered by Contact who also provide support to PCF’s.

Parent Carer Forums come in all different shapes and sizes, but you will only find one in each local authority area. The way forums are set up varies, from charities to voluntary groups and everything in between. Forums must be independent of their local authority and health service; although funding contributions are allowed to support activities. Forums must have the commitment from the local authority to work in coproduction together to be able to apply for the annual parent participation grant.

Forums work in their local areas, but should also connect regionally. Here in Bolton we are active within the Greater Manchester cluster of forums and also within our North West region. Not only does this allow us to understand how other areas are working, but it ensure that local voices are also heard regionally and nationally – in Westminster.

The work of parent carer forums comes together in a national voice coordinated by the National Network of Parent Carer Forums NNPCF. The NNPCF work with the Department for Education and NHS England and keep the voice of parents and carers loud and clear.

What do forums actually do?

Forums across England all carry out their functions differently, so I can only speak for Bolton Parent Carers.

It’s a good question! We can’t vote, we can’t lobby and it’s really much more proactive if we don’t get angry and shout – that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to, quite often. Then, there are so many things that are hard to change, local policy is governed by national policy; local funding is steered by national funding and local change is ruled by national politics.

But this doesn’t stop us, so we sit on committees, groups, boards and task groups, and we often become involved in pieces of work for our area, for instance improving the local offer. And we work, alongside local colleagues, to improve the SEND journey locally.

When we sit on a board, we are never representing ourselves as parents, we are representing the voice and experience of local Bolton families. As a reminder I will often say “I might only be one person, but I represent thousands.”

When we sit on a board we ensure that we are fully knowledgeable about the topic; this means reading law, guidance and policies. It means disappearing down internet rabbit holes to research funding policy and how it affects local schools, or dipping into the SEND Code of Practice for the 751st time to check legislation.

Isn’t it a bit tokenistic? Having a seat on the Children and Young People’s Board, or the SEND Steering Group, may sound like a box ticking exercise; and who’s to say that in some areas it isn’t. All I know is that, here in Bolton, we have a seat at the table, we are listened to and parents experiences are well and truly heard.

How can you represent everyone?

The simple answer is, we can’t. However, we work to ensure that we can hear as many voices as we can locally. We start by ensuring that we understand our local population and demographics. We know our schools and other educational settings, we know the local groups that parent and carers use and we know what health services there are and where they are.

We use different ways of gathering experiences to ensure that we hear from different voices. If the only way that we listened to parents and carers was to say “come and tell us your issues…” then we would only hear the issues of the parents that heard our call. So we ask differently. We offer parents and carers training opportunities by way of workshops; our workshops bring us parents and carers who want to learn more, who are just starting out, who have been on the journey for years, those who are angry and those who have good experiences. We hear a wealth of experiences from our workshops.

We have some surveys. We like surveys because they are quick and easy, for us and for you. But they only reach a small number of parents and carers, and are less likely to reach parents and carers who aren’t already interconnected with the SEND world.

We have focus group sessions with local professionals – where parents and carers can speak directly to our local SEND professionals. These are an incredibly effective way of bringing your experiences to life and to be heard by people who can actually make change.

Finally, we work closely with Bolton Information Advisory Service (IAS.) This relationship brings us close to the experiences of families from all over Bolton, and with all issues. We are also able, through this relationship, to ensure that our forum works through a SEND law lens. By this I mean that we are exposed to law and guidance all the time and we can ensure that the forum benefits from this focus.

What does all this mean?

We sit in meetings, we are vocal, we listen to parents – but what can we actually do if we can’t influence funding decisions nationally, or we can’t demand more school places locally? It means that day-in-day-out we are working alongside professional colleagues, and we are constantly ensuring that families experiences are heard.

What does this do? It aims to change hearts and minds, it’s aims to change the ethos from within. When a parent carer forum is working well within it’s local area, it is making change by influencing local leaders to want to make the change themselves – not because they have been told to, but because they want to, for the local families. And this is what we do.


We asked some local professionals to tell us what they gain from working with Bolton Parent Carers…

As the Director of Children’s Services in Bolton I have welcomed the opportunity to engage with our local parent carer foum as it provides me with insight into what works and what needs to change. This has helped us shape changes in our approach to working with children, young people and families and we hope will improve local services and support.

Bernie Brown, Director of Children’s Services, Bolton Council

In health we are always looking to improve our processes, pathways and ultimately the care we provide to children, young people and their families in Bolton, we need parents and carers to tell us about their experiences of health services and what is needed to achieve the best outcomes for your children.  Our parent carer forum is our critical friend, helping steer the way for better services.  Having Bolton Parent Carer forum around the table at our strategic meetings doesn’t allow us to get bogged down in policy and lifts us to keep children, young people and their families at the heart of all our thinking.  Bolton Parent Carer Forum have been instrumental in developing our co-production toolkit and delivering the message that co-production helps us to do things right first time. 

The Parent Carer Forum also produce regular reports which collate themes from parents and carers in Bolton – these are the reports I always look forward to reading and taking your collective ideas forwards.

Jenny Wilkinson, Designated Officer for SEND

Working with the PCF keeps me grounded and ‘live’ in my practice. I attended an engagement event yesterday with carers and even after my many years in this field of work, I am always left impacted by the real life stories of parents, carers, children and young people. More so because they are often shared with humility, unconditional love and a want to enrich and do what is right. Its important to me that not only do we work in partnership but that there is more intertwining in this way, as if we want to make real change and impact we need to have a real and proper understanding of what communities need.

Minaxi Patel, Head of Service Placements and Resources, Bolton Council.

Bolton Parent Carers has always acted like a compass for me in managing and developing short break support. It helps steer me in the right direction and keeps me on course to ensure the best possible outcomes for our children, young people and families. My relationship with the PCF is crucial to the development of our services so I don’t know what we would do without you!

Sally Hinde, Team Manager, Bolton Shared Care.

We love being part of the Bolton family! Ladywood Outreach Service, part of the Woodbridge Trust has enjoyed a mutually beneficial partnership with the parent carer forum for many years. We strive to work well together, sharing information and maintaining relationships and support key visions from the Local Authority. There is a huge benefit to the children and families that we support. Together we aim to contribute to a place where people feel Active, Connected and Prosperous. 
Cate Marsden, Head of External partnerships, Ladywood Outreach.