A focus on outcome productivity in children’s services would unequivocally deliver the step changes in understanding called for in the recent PAC report ‘Transforming Children’s Services’.
We’re delighted that Nadhim Zahawi – Minister for Children and Families – has accepted all the recommendations made in the independent report Foster Care in England, and that IMPOWER’s Valuing Care programme is mentioned in the Department for Education’s response to the report.
Foster carers play a vital role in our society, and they have long been undervalued. They do an absolutely amazing thing – care for our most vulnerable children. How they are treated says a lot about us as a nation, and it is clear that policy attention is long overdue.
The Foster Care in England report made 36 recommendations to improve the number, experience and efficacy of carers. These ranged from how carers are recruited and their day-to-day powers, through to the system in which they are matched and placed with children. The Ministry’s acceptance of all the recommendations is a very positive step forwards.
At IMPOWER, we are proud of our work with council foster carers, and are delighted that our partnership with Hertfordshire County Council was cited in the report as an innovative and modern approach to recruiting and retaining foster carers.
The sad fact is, however, that every area in the country needs more foster carers. There simply aren’t enough, and you only have to spend a day in a children’s services department to see how acute this issue has become.
Children being taken into care are likely to have been traumatised by the recent events in their lives and by separation from their family network. But these children are increasingly being placed away from their communities and away from who and what they know. Councils are appealing to one another for fostering placements on a daily basis, and essentially competing in a bidding war for placements with foster carers who work for independent agencies.
Part of the problem is that these fostering placements are currently commissioned on a local footprint; there are 152 councils telling independent agencies what they need. They each have different ways of buying and monitoring placements, which makes administration and relationship management extremely complex. It would therefore make sense, said the report, for both commissioners (the councils) and providers to work on a bigger scale and across larger areas.
We absolutely agree. However, there is another issue which needs to be addressed first. Councils cannot currently identify or describe children’s needs in any systematic or consistent way. It is also not possible to show how those needs change over time, either for an individual child or for all children in care.
This is a fundamental barrier to delivering a system that works. It gets in the way of matching and placing children every day. If a placement is found, it is not clear if it is the most appropriate one with the right support – so it may break down. It is not clear if money spent on placements and support is going to the children who need it most, and if their placements are benefitting them. And it is not clear which needs current and future placements should be developed around.
Perhaps most poignantly, there is a question I have heard hundreds of times from foster carers: “How can we help, if we aren’t told what the needs of the child we are expected to care for are?”.
This is why the Valuing Care programme has been developed. We are helping a growing number of councils to improve the life chances of children in care by strengthening the links between children’s needs, the outcomes being pursued, and the resources available. We are delighted that Valuing Care is referenced in the Ministry’s response [on pages 18 and 39]. The programme could and should provide the blueprint, not just for regional commissioning, but for a new way of helping foster carers, and for making a positive difference to the 72,000 children in care.