The charity’s head of enterprise, Jane Heppenstall, has helped to form a comprehensive and trusted programme of learning which is used by councils, housing associations and the third sector. Heppenstall has been working with Shelter for 15 years and believes her progression through the charity has matched the story of the training team.
The team offer a range of e-learning solutions, including courses on money and benefits advice for housing advisers, a professional development award in housing information and advice, and a training programme in housing information and advice (National Standards).
Heppenstall said: “I started working at Shelter in an advice work role, I was helping people with their housing problems, doing lots of court representation and working with our partners in local authorities even then, to try and fix things for people. I gradually moved across to form a training team because we’d always known that local authorities were very keen to have us work with them on the challenges they faced. It has always been a very mature relationship, there have been things to say on both sides but councils have always wanted us to come and talk to them. We felt that there was a need to formalise that and pull together a more professional training team which we started to do just over ten years ago.
“I manage what we now call the learning and information team. As with so many other organisations, we have broadened out from simply being a training provider, to providing information services as well. We deliver face-to-face training, e-learning, web resources and Shelter legal, which is very popular among local authorities. We have a range of what people call ‘products’. I manage the team which delivers all those things and I keep a bit of my practicebased hat on by doing a lot of the face-to-face delivery myself.
“We decided to focus on this anniversary because the actual e-learning product is ten years old and we are finding ways to celebrate the relationship we have with local authorities and work out how we can continue to build on that. Ten years ago, we launched an e-learning programme which supported the Scottish National Standards’ housing information and advice. What we were commissioned to do, by what was then HomePoint, was produce an e-learning package which met with all the knowledge competencies relating to housing, including homelessness rights and the private rented sector, the kind of key housing issues the front-line staff are facing. It was taken up by four agencies ten years ago and it has grown from there, with every local authority in Scotland having bought it from us, to a greater or lesser extent.
“Local authorities are continuing to work out what the National Standards mean for them and how they can continue to work towards them. It has been an incredible ten years in terms of Scottish housing history. It feels quite an exciting and responsible place to be, in 2012 itself, having done this for ten years and saying, ‘how can we work together to get this right’.
It is such a key moment in Scottish housing history. With a combination of the 2012 commitment and getting the housing options agenda right, there are so many things which are being teased out and settled down this year. We are very pleased to still be here and still be growing.”
Heppenstall and her team have also seen many changes in technology over the past decade, from the introduction of the internet to the social media revolution.
She added: “When we started ten years ago, we were taking stacks of floppy discs around the country. It’s gone from floppy discs to Facebook, that is very much where we are. The first time we met with people to talk about e-learning, it was viewed as the next step between us and rockets. Whereas in fact, all we were doing was taking our stacks of floppy discs and CD Roms, which were another exciting departure, and introducing a method of learning. This was still in a period of time where you’d go into an office and there would be an actual lock on the ‘A’ drive to stop staff using it because who knew what would happen. We also worked with local authorities during the period when they were getting internet access. That was a controversial and long drawn out process.
“Parallel to seeing the process of housing law evolving, we saw the technology change and we have responded to that. We now have a dedicated website where people log on to access our training and we are trying to make that smarter by bringing in more interesting web products and getting a little more innovative in terms of how we deliver it. That curve has been one for Shelter, as well as one for local authorities. It is not unfair to say that the reason we are still here and being asked to provide this training is because it has been a two-way conversation. The reason we have got about 96 per cent completion rate for our e-learners, which is unusually high for e-learning, is because our staff invest in it. They will go and see people and listen to what is on their minds and it is very different across the country.
“We’ve never tried to force a standard product on people and say, ‘take it or leave it’. It is very much about how the system works for people, if they come back and say they want to do things slightly differently or they need supplementary questions or whatever, we will do it.”
While the large majority of the team’s clients are local authorities, they also work with housing associations and voluntary organisations. Heppenstall said housing associations make up a “significant minority” of the team’s work.
Looking to the future, she added: “We want to let people know we are looking at developing and examining the key themes in Scotland at the moment that link to housing, so, for example, health and homelessness, and we’re trialling courses in different formats. We’ve also got our first money and benefits modules.
“That has been part of the strength of our team. We hear from local authority staff about what it feels like to carry out a homeless person’s interview or what they need because they are seeing a lot of illegal evictions or issues of harassment or there is a big spike in domestic abuse incidents. They tell us these things and we will be able to look at how to help tackle it. Investing that amount of time is one of the reasons why it works. Partly why we are celebrating this ten years is to let people know we want to give something back in that relationship; we don’t want anyone to assume we take people for granted and we just see them as customers. We are working on an event later this year where we’ll invite people along and say, ‘here’s where we’re hoping go next and we need you to tell us what you want’. This year we are seeing people who want to actually meet someone and talk about what it feels like to work through housing and homelessness issues. I think we’ll see this evolve. We are trying to explore more flexible responses to people’s needs.”