Young children playing with toys

Chief executive Catherine McLeod MBE tells us about Dingley's Promise's pandemic response, and how it has changed the way the charity supports families moving forward.

Independent children's charity Dingley's Promise is on a mission to deliver life-changing support to under-fives with additional needs and disabilities, by providing specialist learning through play, family support and training, and advice to mainstream settings. Chief executive Catherine McLeod MBE tells us about the charity’s pandemic response - during and post lockdown - and how it has changed the way it supports families moving forward.

Key challenges

At the heart of the work of Dingley’s Promise has been face-to-face nursery support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. The arrival of the pandemic changed all of that - with lockdown meaning the enforced closure of its centres. “Almost immediately we realised we were going to have to make fundamental changes to the way we support our children and their families, to the way our staff work and also to the way we raise funds,” recalls chief executive Catherine McLeod. “We had to think quickly about what we could do to continue to support those children and also support their families during a period of enforced isolation.”

COVID-19 response

High on the charity’s priority list in lockdown was keeping families informed about what was happening. “Without information people often imagine the worst, so we established a communications plan that made sure we were updating them regularly,” says McLeod. It created a parent contact log on its shared drive, allowing all staff to log when they had contact with parents to track which families needed most support.

Families could also access one-to-one online activities from the child’s key worker using Zoom. It helped children to see their key workers online to offer some continuity that their teachers were still there even if they couldn’t physically be alongside. 

Using Tapestry, Dingley families could access videos from staff and upload their own to show children’s progress at home. The lack of geographical boundaries online also meant the charity could support new families who did not usually attend its centres. 

Staff was another key challenge - with a quarter of Dingley's staff (24%) furloughed and many across the board lacking skills and confidence with technology. Zoom helped the remaining team, with a weekly online meeting helping workers to triage families to the best person in the team for support.

“This was the first time we worked across all our centres on a project - and the technology allowed us to overcome geographical boundaries and work as one whole team,” says McLeod. With Zoom meetings, staff felt supported despite their isolation. Even those on furlough were encouraged to join in team meetings to keep in touch - and there were evening activities like team quiz nights to reduce feelings of isolation.

As with many other charities, fundraising was a major challenge for Dingley’s. The charity forecast that it would lose a third of its income - with the greatest impact from September onwards. It needed to cover the cost of more laptops for staff and an increase in social media work. Dingley’s created an appeal on Justgiving, raising £33,000, then started applying for emergency funding. It also engaged with the online 2.6 Challenge, and raised just over £1,000 from that. “We have been very careful though to make it a real choice for people, as we recognise some will be struggling financially and don’t want to put any undue pressure on them at this time,” says McLeod.

Training was the final part of Dingley’s priority work as it decided to change its online offer from paid-for using moodle and Zoom, to a free, unaccredited version. “We realised that there was an opportunity to spread good practice more widely than ever before,” recalls McLeod. The decision to offer training for free led to 737 sign-ups from across the UK before the pandemic training offer was closed at the end of June. Trainees reported huge increases in confidence and knowledge for working inclusively and have ongoing support from a closed Facebook group set up as part of the training package.

With the return to face-to-face provision from June, the charity was keen to share what it had learned from its experience - as well as the impact on children and families. In a blog, McLeod observed that "it seems that the higher the needs, the more children have suffered during lockdown...meaning that our most vulnerable children have suffered the most during lockdown. All of this has led us to making a big decision for Dingley’s Promise; we are going to offer remote support throughout the summer holidays for families of young children with SEND."

A young child playing with a toy

Digital and its impact

Google Drive - document sharing on family contacts, home working and remote working enables staff to share and track work. 

Zoom - used for drop-ins for families and team meetings - as well as one-to-one sessions with children at home.

Tapestry - allows staff to upload resources for families, and families to record progress of children and share back.

Facebook - new closed groups were set up to support parents and trainees so they could interact with each other. 

Social media engagement including on LinkedIn and Twitter raised awareness and shared resources and good practice across the country with those who suddenly had time on their hands. The charity’s website also offered important COVID-19 updates.

Amazon Workspaces - the charity invested in remote desktop so that staff working from home had a secure desktop on their machines to keep data as safe as possible. “Our supplier got a really good deal on our behalf because we are a charity,” says McLeod.

SurveyMonkey - throughout the crisis, Dingley’s Promise has used SurveyMonkey to gather views and evaluate response. “Parents have told us that the support we gave them has made a huge difference and also what they want to see in our services in the future,” says McLeod. This feedback has helped to drive the creation of the charity’s summer offer and recovery programme. 

New and different?

“To use all the digital strategies that we did and so quickly is fairly unusual for a small charity. We managed to bring together children, families and staff to give them a structure to help them get through the isolation. Each thread of this complements the overall aim of providing support and building a better world after the crisis,” says McLeod.

Advice to others

“Be as transparent and supportive as you possibly can,” advises McLeod. “You will have many people around you who are not comfortable with using technology - staff, beneficiaries, trustees, volunteers, funders - and you need to take the time to explain all changes and work with them to help them access new channels of communication. No question is a stupid question, and it can be so empowering for those who once feared technology to realise they can use it to make an even bigger impact.”


Blog: Adaptation and change: how Dingley’s Promise is supporting families this summer

Dingley’s Promise - details

Type of charity: Children’s services

Location: Reading, West Berkshire, Wokingham

Annual income: £648,000

Staff: 37 + 24 volunteers


Community Centre

Kennet Walk



0118 327 7424



Twitter: @Dingley

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