The NAO report on Children in Care laid some heavy gauntlets at the door of DfE and the wider sector last week.
Let me start by paraphrasing some of the findings:
- Demand is increasing, by which they mean the number of children in care is rising
- Overall spending on children in care has grown at a broadly similar rate
- But outcomes aren’t improving or are, “at best, mixed”, specifically:
- Educational attainment for children in care isn’t much better now than 3 years ago
- Placement stability hasn’t really improved since 2009 either, and
- Children in care are still too often placed at distance from home
- And the sector doesn’t understand how the costs of looking after children relate to needs and outcomes
The Department has dismissed the report as “flawed”, on the basis it ignores achievements like Staying Put (care leavers remaining with foster parents beyond 18), progress in adoption (the subject of NAO’s next report in this space) and incremental improvements in other outcome measures for children in care. I doubt it will carry much political capital in its own right. Much of the analysis and narrative is, I think, overly-simplistic. In the selective assessment of outcomes, in the assertions about commissioning and placement practice, and certainly in the recommendations (well-intended I’m sure but naïve and predictably centralist / structural).
One of those simple points rings absolutely true for me though: the disconnect between cost and outcomes.
“Neither the Department nor local authorities have a strong understanding of the drivers of costs”
This issue, I believe, is what’s stopping the sector from having a meaningful conversation about the state’s role and responsibility in parenting our most vulnerable children. And it’s what is getting in the way of the case for more funding and better things for those children. Think about how many local authorities can answer these basic questions intelligently, based on local empirical evidence:
- What are the needs of the children who are looked after (CLA), the children with protection plans (CP) and the children in need (CiN)?
- What are we helping these children achieve?
- What resources do we allocate to that?
Most ‘Corporate Parents’ (local authorities) could respond at length on a case by case basis. But how many could demonstrate a systematic understanding? “Children in our community need this and it costs that”.
All children are different and I’m not for a second suggesting otherwise. What I think social care commissioners must do, though, is come to an evidenced local view on how money is and should be spent to meet the different needs of those children, at whatever tier of need. That means codifying and capturing needs systematically. Only then can local authorities and their partners respond credibly when they are challenged on practice and waste. And only then can a Corporate Parent make confident local assertions about the ‘right’ number of children in care and the right level of funding to deliver our ambitions for them. An answer to the question of whether demand is rising, or changing, must surely define demand in the first place.
I suspect this is what the NAO was getting at with its recommendation for ‘standard foster care contracts’. The sentiment is right I think but misses the point. Until local needs are related to local resources, we just can’t offer a robust counter to the points made by NAO. There are a number of tools that go some way to doing this and no doubt some pockets of good practice in applying them. Call it a resource allocation system, or something else, we must develop one quickly or one of the most important issues in our society – when and how we help children to achieve – will remain a guessing game.
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