I've visited eight adult social care departments this year, and talked with front line staff in all of them.
This month Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson committed to a “national stocktake of fostering”. In response to the national news piece about the ‘poaching’ of council foster carers and the attendant claims of profiteering, Mr Timpson said that the stocktake would “include looking at the role fostering agencies play”.
So how can the role of fostering agencies be evaluated? And what else should the stocktake include? Based on our work with thousands of carers and over eighty top tier councils on fostering, here’s what I would suggest:
Agencies often argue that the playing field in fostering commissioning is not a level one. When placing children, councils by and large look to in-house carers first by default. Some would consider this “immoral and wrong” (in the same way Dave Hill, ADCS President, described the agency practice of poaching council carers through golden hellos) because it may mean that all appropriate options are not considered for the child. And if councils are making these placement decisions based on misguided costing information anyway, then you can see the point. Commissioning strategy and practice must be looked at, but this can only be transformed if the Department of Education (DfE) helps a stretched sector better understand cost and outcomes…
There is an ongoing debate about whether fostering placements provided by councils are cheaper than those provided by independent agencies. Representing agencies, such as the National Association of Fostering Providers, says not. But what matters is that those who are commissioning placements firmly believe that they are (see for instance the recent DfE report on Children’s Services Spending and Delivery, para 111). Certainly iMPOWER’s costing work across the sector backs this up.
Agreeing a consistent method for costing fostering placements will be a necessity if anything is to change when councils are beyond cash strapped. However, the real key here is not just getting a grip on cost, but on value. To determine this, outcomes must be understood and compared too.
In its 2014 report, the National Audit Office was unambiguous in its value-for-money assessment of DfE’s role in children’s services: “The Department [for Education] cannot demonstrate that it is meeting its objectives to improve the quality of care and the stability of placements for children through the £2.5 billion spent by local authorities; it has no indicators to measure the efficacy of the care system; and it lacks an understanding of what drives the costs of care”.
Because the sector doesn’t capture placement needs or outcomes in a way that can be codified and aggregated, it can’t evidence how placements compare in value terms. In other words, we don’t really know – on a system level – what needs we spend money on, and what outcomes we get.
This applies to all placements, council and external, and not just fostering, and it is getting in the way of intelligent financial planning and better outcomes for vulnerable children. iMPOWER have recently written a paper on this point. After the Governments big push on adoption, it’s good to see Mr Timpson now also looking at other ways of helping children. If he intends “to better understand current provision”, then I hope the above will provide the main focus for his stocktake.