Nobody knows the pressure facing the North-east’s care and education sector quite like John Phillipson.

As the one time head of social services for North Tyneside and with 11 years under his belt as chief executive of the North East Autism Society, the 59-year-old who hails from the terraced streets in the shadow of St James’ Park, says he’s lived through many challenging times, but nothing quite like this.

“Most of my career has been overseeing the care of people with vulnerabilities so there is always a background pressure of knowing services need to extend to more people and money has to go further. But these days are unprecedented. Lines are being drawn. For local authorities the pressure is to drive down the rates they can pay for social care and education, for us it’s trying to reach a level at which we can still deliver safe, life-changing services as cheap as we can. Unfortunately those lines aren’t often in the same place. These are challenging times.”

John, who left ‘the school he hated’ as a teenager, briefly tried his hand in the building trade before accepting a role as a clerk within Newcastle City Council’s education department which opened doors for a new career in care.

“Hats off to that council at the time,” said life-long Newcastle United fan John, “they were pretty forward thinking to take on a male, far less a teenager. The grand title at the time was ‘trainee care worker’ which meant doing a stint in various settings. At the end of the scheme a handful of people would get full-time jobs and I remember the boss taking me to one side, a 19-year-old Geordie who dropped out of school, saying he thought I had a career working with people – but had to smarten up my act.”

With a promise to refine his manners and agreeing to a placement with infants, John, now of Whitley Bay, became ‘the only male north of the Humber’ working in nursery care.

“I have to say, carrying the hod on a building site was much easier at times than working in the nursery. Particularly in its residential section.”
At the time of his placement, those under-five and under-10, weren’t often fostered so lived in the residential unit.

He added: “I learned more in that time than I had in my life until that point. Dealing with deprivation, working with families struggling to cope, learning how difficult the role of parent can actually be. Even my politics changed. I grew up in a conservative working class background and by the time I finished there I had swung the other way.

“From there I moved to a young people’s remand home used as a last chance saloon for troubled kids entrusted to the care of the local authority. That was probably one of the biggest turning points in my life.”

Not long into his new post a young person in his care disclosed allegations of abuse.

“It was very much a whistle-blower situation, which meant I was doing less of my normal duties and more around helping the police investigate. I was 19. I’m sure I would have been promoted had it not been for my age. I was asked to then help set up a family centre, which I did, and that became a stepping stone to a secondment at what was then Newcastle Poly to get a formal qualification as a social worker.”

By the time he was 26 John was in his first management job setting up a project for young offenders with Barnardo’s in South Tyneside. Such was the success of the unit that the deputy PM, Roy Hattersley and even HRH Princess Diana visited the landmark project which engaged with young people to stave off an inevitable prison sentence.

He added: “That was my favourite job. I loved it. It became a passion of mine to make sure we weren’t just providing services but making sure we had a measurable impact. It’s easy in times like we’re facing today to keep saying, ‘yes we’re helping’, but services in themselves aren’t enough, there must be lives changed in the process.”

In 2000 keen cyclist John returned to North Tyneside this time as head of children’s services before finally becoming head of social services in 2002.

“I loved my job but there’s a very real tension when you are making life and death decisions at times, always under the strain of stretched resources.”

John recalls a moment, just two days into his role as head of the authority’s social services, when a serious case review landed on his desk. Still visibly moved 20 years on, he explained: “Child abuse is always the worst. You’re sickened by it. It’s horrific and you can’t quite get your head around how this has happened. I remember answering the phone to the newspapers and explaining that I had just started so there would be no impending resignation, then getting off the phone to read this report. As I got to the back page I came face to face with the dead child. I could have wept.

John Phillipson, ceo at NE-AS

“If you care – and I have to say I think the North-east has some of the most dedicated professionals, working under unprecedented pressures, of anywhere in the country. But if you care, which means you do your job as best you can, there will be some very dark days indeed. And you face things now we hadn’t dreamed about 30 or 40 years ago.”

With an ever ageing population, more and more children surviving premature births often requiring additional support, under the cloud of multi-million pound budget cuts, all the region’s care services will feel the squeeze.

According to the Invest in Young Lives report by New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) there has been significant cuts in funding for families with disabled children. Under Universal Credit, for example, extra payments for a disabled child are to be cut by more than 50% for the majority of disabled children.

The September 2016 report states: “15 Charities working with children have faced widespread cuts, including the removal of ring-fenced funding for short breaks. There is likely to be further strain on the limited resources in the sector in light of the rising prevalence of disability. For example, the number of children diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or learning disabilities who are receiving the Disability

Living Allowance increased from around 50,000 in 1995 to around 210,000 in 2012.”

John said: “This isn’t a dig at the councils. I’ve been there. I’ve been the one who’s had to make the cuts and decide what services will or won’t continue. One of the most impacting things ever to happen to me was meeting a disabled lady receiving home support. She was one of these people who draw you in. She said, ‘Mr Phillipson do you like the summer nights?’ I said, ‘I do, yes.’ She said, ‘do you like going for walks on nights like this?’. Again I said that I did. She looked me straight in the eye and said ‘well your people come here at five o’clock every night and take off my legs because there’s no more money to come any later.’ How do you make that decision? Either no more home services impacting the lives of disabled people or maybe axing a family centre for troubled kids in Meadow Well?

I don’t believe anyone takes these issues lightly – regardless of which side of the table you sit at, but for us at NEAS we are now at a place where we can acknowledge the councils are under incredible pressure but we can’t be expected to provide the specialist services we offer to people with autism any cheaper. It’s people’s lives.

With over 600 staff, two schools, a college, 45 buildings which include residential homes for children and adults, and a vocational training centre at a farm in County Durham, John is profoundly aware of the weight on his shoulders.

“My priority first and foremost is making sure the people entrusted to us are safe, but then it’s our job to make a difference. With the figures telling us that at least one per cent of our nation will have an autism spectrum condition, many needing extremely specialist care, it would be easy to say ‘of course we can help, we’re the experts,’ but if the amount the local authorities can pay is less than what it costs to provide expert carers, teachers, buildings etc, we can’t do it. We would be doing a disservice to say we can.”

Currently the North East Autism Society schools in Sunderland and Aycliffe are under capacity.

John added: “I’m aware classing ourselves as specialist means people think we are going to cost the earth, but we don’t. If you add up the cost of any child going to school, then additional costs to support those with an ASC or learning difficulties, then our fees will come right alongside that. And the outcomes are usually better.”

But council cuts just don’t affect service users. The staff working in those services take a hit too.

“I’m incredibly grateful to our workforce for understanding the pressure and strain we are under. To keep our rates, in residential care and education, as low as we can while still doing a good job means we have had to have pay freezes, we’ve had to change sickness absences policies, we’ve had to reduce holidays.”

And such moves have seen NEAS remain in the black when several other autism-specific organisations haven’t been so lucky.

“Don’t get me wrong,” John added, “at the minute we are making ends meet any surplus is ploughed straight back into services. We run free toddler groups in Stanley that don’t receive any support other than from us and the generosity of those who fundraise for us. They’re lifelines for families awaiting a diagnosis.

“But I’m not foolish enough to think it’s plain sailing. I just heard MP Chi Onwurah on the radio today asking parliament if the European funding we will lose is going to be replaced, or replaced with central government neglect. I can tell you right now a loss of European funding won’t just affect us, it will impact services across the region.

“At the end of the day we will do whatever it takes to make sure adults, young people and children in the North-east with autism, receive the best care, education and support available. If we need to change how we do it, then so be it. Autism isn’t a life sentence, it’s a different way of viewing the world, and my world for the foreseeable is making sure we find ways of making theirs the best it can be.”