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Alastair Thompson

Children’s placements: switching from lottery to logic


I am pleased that the debate on funding for children’s services is getting more traction at a national level, thanks in large part to the efforts of sector representatives such as the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Local Government Association.

At iMPOWER we are contributing to the debate through our latest programme, Valuing Care. Valuing Care helps councils to better understand the system complexity around Looked After Children, and enables the various parts of that complex system to work better together, improving the life chances of children in the care of councils.

I have seen first-hand how intervention and professional care can transform lives. The fact is, though, that most children’s services teams can’t yet show the difference they are making for and with the children in their care. This is at the heart of the problem.

Nationally, councils do collect some outcomes measures. The graphic below is taken from the children in care and care leavers module of our iMPOWER iNDEX, which helps local authorities understand their productivity (looking at value, not efficiency). The chart shows the performance of councils for 2016/17 across a range of outcomes we are able to measure, compared with average spend per child in care. We have recently updated the module to include educational progress and attainment outcomes data released at the end of March 2018.

Our analysis tells us which councils are the most productive in relation to children in care – those which produce better outcomes for children at a lower cost. By this definition, the top ten most productive councils are:

  1. Wirral
  2. Durham
  3. Hartlepool
  4. Bury
  5. Oldham
  6. Bolton
  7. North Lincolnshire
  8. Wigan
  9. Rochdale
  10. Salford

Plaudits to these councils, particularly as a number also saw significant rises in the numbers of children they care for during the time period in question.

However, before we look at the variation between most and least productive councils and declare a postcode lottery, we need to ask an obvious question: what can outcomes tell us without context?

No doubt we are all interested in a child’s attainment at Key Stage 2, or in absenteeism. But all children are different and a great outcome for one child could be irrelevant for another. To make sense of outcomes and define good value, we need to take account of a child’s experiences, situation and level of need.

This is why, through Valuing Care, some councils are working to systematically codify and quantify need, for each and every child in their care. For the first time they are developing a picture of what their children need. As the graphic below from one area shows, there is currently very limited correlation between what children in care need and what is spent on their placement.

The kicker is that the longer this situation goes on for, the more difficult it will be to have a meaningful conversation about value: how needs relate to spend, and how spend relates to outcomes. Meanwhile, the guessing game around funding will continue, locally and nationally, while children draw straws for the care they receive.

It is no-one’s fault. It’s the result of a complex and fragmented system that speaks different languages and has different motivations and priorities: social work, brokerage, commissioning, finance, providers, carers, workers, health partners – and the children themselves.

The councils using our Valuing Care approach will make a positive difference because they recognise this. By creating a new language that allows every discussion to be anchored in children’s needs and the outcomes being pursued, they are calling time on this lottery. We are looking forward to sharing more evidence from this work and to contributing to the evidence-based discussion on children’s services funding that it supports. It is time to switch from a lottery to logic.

To find out more about how your council ranks in relation to children in care on the iMPOWER iNDEX, or to discuss the Valuing Care programme, get in touch.

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