Despite a plethora of reviews, children’s social care remains mired in a crisis of spiralling placement costs, insufficient care provision and a row over the rights of 16 and 17-year-olds to receive support.
These issues, along with the Government’s plans to stop the extra £20 Universal Credit (UC) payment this month, came to the fore last week during an online Westminster Education Forum on the future of children’s social care.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at the weekend that it was ‘inappropriate’ to stop the £20 UC cut. But Darren Bishton, practice lead of the National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum (NLCBF) Catch 22, told the forum the higher rate had been ‘a significant benefit for young people’.
He continued: ‘We would like to move the £59.20 rate up to the [current] £74.70 rate – that’s the rate for young people over 25. We feel it’s really important to give young people the right start. The ability [of care leavers] to survive on £59.20 is very limited, and we’d really like to get that extra boost so that we can give those young people those extra skills to actually work on their employment and education.’
The scale of the crisis facing children and families in the North East was starkly laid out by Sue Butcher, director of children’s services at Middlesbrough Council. Drawing on the North East Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ (ADCS) submission to the ongoing Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England, she said that locally poverty is ‘stark, shameless and obvious’, and that ‘life chances are blighted’.
She added: ‘The numbers of children requiring intensive support are not sustainable in the North East – or, we believe, nationally. More importantly, the current arrangements do not serve families well, and do not lead to the best outcomes for children.’
The North East ADCS has ‘two asks’ of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England, she said. ‘We feel that the Care Review must press Government to develop an ambitious cross-departmental strategy to reduce and then end child poverty as part of its levelling up agenda. And we need to recognise the impact of reductions in local authority funding and press for significant investment to reverse the loss of early help capacity in local areas.’
She called for a long-term cross-government strategy for early help and prevention. ‘We feel there should be a statutory duty for local authorities, the police, health and schools to meet the early help needs of children…. And we need a more diverse and better skilled children’s social care workforce.’
Asked how those who wanted to see the children’s care market dismantled could achieve that while ensuring an adequate level of specialist provision for children with complex needs, Ms Butcher said it was ‘about sufficiency and it’s about sufficiency near to home’.
‘It really needs this overall government look at sufficiency of placements for children with complex needs.’
Ms Butcher said her council is paying almost £1m a year for one placement. She continued: ‘It’s about some capital investment. How can a system be right if I have to pay £18,000 a week for a placement?’ In this particular case she said she was ‘not talking about those most complex young people, I’m talking about that being the only place available to that young person after numerous searches’.
Larger providers can regulate the market by not providing as many places as are needed, ‘so the ones that are there become more expensive. And we are chasing after them’, she continued.
‘Any time of the week you can say “Oh we’ve found a placement, it’s in Blackpool or wherever”. And you can ring back ten minutes later and another local authority has already taken it. You start the search again. We can do over 2,000 searches for one child. So I think we need to take a look at some of the way the placements are provided, we need to take a look at what the sufficiency is.’
What other action is needed? ‘I think we need to go for not-for-profit or capping profit. I think it’s a whole range of things that needs to come together.’
Matthew Brazier is specialist advisor for looked after children at Ofsted. What does he think of the Care Review’s direction of travel as outlined in June’s Case for Change report? He welcomed the emphasis placed on early intervention, and agreed with the report’s emphasis on enhancing support for kinship families.
Like Ms Butcher, he highlighted significant problems with capacity, calling sufficiency ‘a huge problem’. He said that Ofsted also knew ‘the quality of supported accommodation that is catering for so many young people now is too variable’.
He pointed to a ‘serious lack of the right type of children’s homes in the right place along with a chronic shortage of foster homes and secure provision’, meaning that some of the most vulnerable children are likely to be a long way from home – sometimes in unsuitable provision.
Is Ofsted looking at the things that matter most? He said that with the exception of children’s homes [regulations], the regulations are ‘pretty much out of date and don’t always accurately reflect the way that people work nowadays or the situations that children live in’.
Ofsted has shared ‘a fair amount of information’ with the Department of Education and the Care Review team on how it thinks the Care Standards Act and other regulations can be updated to help make it a more effective regulator, he told the forum.
He said the number of 16 and 17-year-olds in semi-independent or independent provision had increased significantly between 2014 and 2020, and the proportion in semi-independent provision ‘has nearly quadrupled’.
Unregulated placements which do not provide care for children aged under 16 were banned from 9 September. Mr Brazier said there had been ‘a lot of controversy and noise in the sector’ about the ban not extending to all children up to the age of 18. But he emphasised that the shortage of suitable care provision ‘has undoubtedly contributed in a significant way to the increase in the use of unregulated and unregistered provision’.
The Government is currently consulting on new standards for unregulated provision and is expected to respond before Christmas. Mr Brazier said Ofsted are already talking to the Department for Education ‘a lot’, and ‘will soon begin developing the detail for registering and inspecting this provision.’ He said they would consult widely with the sector on the proposals, and estimated that ‘with a fair wind behind us we will register providers in April 2023 at the earliest.’
In conclusion, he said that whatever model Ofsted arrives at for regulation and inspection ‘needs to be extremely flexible and creative and it needs to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and it needs to avoid hindering people from entering the sector because we don’t want to add to the sufficiency difficulties’.
But crucially he underlined that when Ofsted inspects supported accommodation for a child aged 16 or 17 which is currently unregulated ‘we’ll want to be seeing that it is demonstrably in their best interests’.