The issue of children in care is rarely far from the frontpages – and it’s usually accompanied by sensational and often misleading headlines.
Ofsted’s latest study into children in care, Why do children go into children’s homes?, generated understandable column inches stating that there is a ‘lack of collective knowledge on the needs of children in care’.
While we don’t disagree with the sentiment that more can be done to understand the needs of children in care, it’s important to put this into some context.
The study involved 83 homes and 113 children. Ofsted visits at least 6,500 children in care each year. Out of the 12 million children living in England, just under 400,000 are in the social care system at any one time and more than 80,000 of these children are children in care. This study is a snapshot of why children go into care and only scratches the surface when it comes to better understanding the extent of their needs and the dynamics experienced by children, their carers, local authority senior managers, social workers, commissioners and independent reviewing officers.
The study recommends a national audit of the needs of children in care to provide better understanding at a ‘strategic level’. While such data is useful – particularly as it doesn’t, and has never existed – the real question is how will this information be used and filtered down to help support children, while also addressing the well-documented sufficiency crisis.
When you describe someone’s needs as ‘challenging’, ‘complex’ and ‘diverse’, and then associate them with a lack of sufficient places and uneven distribution around the country, then a national audit seems to fall short of what’s needed. It’s also worth pointing out that 75% of children surveyed were understood to be well-matched with their children’s home placement, so in many cases the system is working.
You can’t argue with the sentiment of this study – this is about the provision of the ‘right care, in the right place, at the right time, to help children in need of care achieve the best outcomes’. But isn’t it about time that we stopped producing report, after report, with high-level outcomes that could take an age to make a real difference, and actually work with all stakeholders to come up with practical steps that start to break down the challenges that exist in the sector?
Yes – knowledge is key, and listening to children in particular is vital, but what can we be doing right now to ensure the remaining quarter of children are well-matched in a home that meets their needs. For me, the top five priorities are:
• Local authorities and the independent sector working more closely together to shape the market through better business planning and needs mapping.
• Reducing the barriers to increasing sufficiency, such as taking away the need for change of use planning permission.
• The voice of independent reviewing officers reported more effectively as a quality assurance tool. They visit the homes that children are placed in and can give a sound additional voice to that of Ofsted.
• The statutory framework for 16 to 18-year-oldprovision to be released and acted upon, to effectively remove services that do a disservice to vulnerable young people.
• Market oversight from Ofsted that understands that care for very vulnerable young people can be expensive to deliver and that the industry needs huge investment. A reasonable conversation around what is a reasonable profit margin, without the sensationalist headlines, is vital.
Debate is important and data helps to inform, but there are many, many children whose needs must be met while we wait for conclusions. We need to work collectively and as individual organisations to ensure this is happening right now, so we can provide the ‘right care, in the right place, at the right time’.