'We have already achieved better outcomes for some of our young people, and we think this could save us around £4.2m a year.' Martin Gray, Director of Children's Services at Stockton Council.
Here at IMPOWER, we have been digesting the findings of the evidence review undertaken as part of the national “stocktake” on fostering, which was commissioned by the government last year.
If you’re not aware, the aim of the stocktake is to review what’s working well within the current fostering system, and to identify where improvements could be made to improve outcomes for children. The evidence review component is based on three months’ work pulling together both quantitative and qualitative research, including some findings from previous IMPOWER fostering projects.
The review makes for some interesting reading, and many of the evidential observations echo our analysis of the state of the fostering system. It certainly underlines our view that our new Valuing Care programme – which we’ve just launched – offers a robust solution for successfully dealing with some of the persistent challenges.
There are a few findings that I’d like to pull out and expand on.
The review states:
“Alongside the rise in numbers and the changing profile of looked after children, the literature [reviewed] also widely documents a belief that children entering care do so with ever more complex difficulties, including serious physical and mental health problems and developmental problems. Although this was confirmed in the interviews with key informants, it is difficult to evidence as the ‘complexity’ of problems is not systematically recorded.”
This chimes with what we are finding in our work: there is no consistent and agreed way of recording the complexity of difficulties, or the needs that should be supported through a successful placement. Not only does this deficiency increase the chance of a placement failing a child, but also prevents the council’s strategic commissioning ability to guide the market toward what good (and good value) looks like, something that most providers will say is missing right now.
Additionally, it means there is a lack of evidence upon which local authorities can train and support their carers to successfully meet the needs within placements. As the review says:
“An important aspect of matching is the information passed to foster carers on the children and young people; placements based on inadequate information are less likely to be successful.”
The lack of consistent recording is also affecting our ability to understand the outcomes children are achieving through their placement. The review goes on to say:
“It was not clear how the ‘quality’ of placements was judged. There is also very little research into how commissioning may be linked with outcomes, although a few accounts are beginning to emerge. Outcomes-based commissioning has been a feature of health services for some years but has been slower to develop in children’s services.”
If there is no baseline from which outcomes can be evaluated, then there is little chance of understanding whether a commissioned placement has been truly successful. This results in huge amounts of money being spent with little understanding on how we are adding value to the life chances of vulnerable children. The review highlights the massive variation in placement cost which, we believe, is in part driven by this lack of a baseline:
“The National Audit Office (2014) also found considerable variation in local authority spending on foster care. It calculated that annual spending ranged from £15,000 to £57,000 for their own foster care provision, and £18,000 to £73,000 for other providers’ foster care.”
Contributing to this is the reality that we often focus assessments on risks and challenging behaviours, missing an opportunity to tell the whole story of the child. This would include, for example, what they can do. Children are often labeledg to their detriment, which also drives placement providers to (quite understandably) build in cost.
This is where the benefit of our new Valuing Care programme comes in. We have developed the tools and methodology to support local authorities, with the ultimate aim of achieving better outcomes for children who enter care. The programme enables councils to to better understand and record needs, which in turn drives up placement stability and forges a market that works for them. As the review recommends:
“An important step would be the development of appropriate and consistent measures of placement outcomes.”
Valuing Care is responding directly to this recommendation. If you’d like to come with us on the journey, please get in touch.