'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.
Four out of ten children in care today might not be there if the system was better organised. That’s one of the major findings of our Turning the Tide report, and it continues to shock me. Published last year, the report made the case for a care system that can confidently and safely prevent needs from escalating, and prevent the haemorrhaging of resources to expensive crisis care rather than funding early interventions.
Aligned to this is the need to ensure that every pound spent in supporting children and young people makes the best possible use of resources. Nowhere is this needed more than in the commissioning of placements.
In children’s services departments across the country, the links between the needs of children in care and the level of spending are weak, and there is often no evidence that the best outcome has been delivered. Clearly, this situation is not in the interests of either children or councils.
IMPOWER’s approach – Valuing Care – has one aim: to improve the life chances of children in care by linking councils’ resources with needs and outcomes.
Councils have to become more proactive in the market, by shaping it, and by influencing what is actually wanted from placements, through a better articulation of need. Currently, the placement system is too reactive, too focused on risk, and too vague in terms of specific outcomes.
In some cases, this puts control firmly in the hands of providers, and it prevents a mature dialogue between providers and councils over the kind of provision needed locally to support children.
To shape the market effectively, councils need to have a much clearer understanding of the needs of the children in their care. Sadly, the current approach to commissioning does not support this. As a result, there is currently no relationship between spend and need, and councils cannot demonstrate any link between spend and outcomes.
IMPOWER is working with a group of forward-thinking local authorities to bridge this gap by matching resources to needs. We start by codifying and scoring each child’s needs, and mapping these to current costs. We have found several cases where two children with the same level of need have very differentiated costs. Indeed, in one extreme case, one child’s care package cost almost 12 times the cost of another with similar needs. This is a ludicrous situation, underlining the lack of focus on what’s really in the child’s best interests. There is also some evidence to suggest that providers are building in additional costs to manage the risk of the unknown, and are at times cross-subsidising placements.
Our Valuing Care programme shows that these challenges need more than academic frameworks or ‘dynamic purchasing systems’. The solution lies in changing cultures, changing behaviours, and changing expectations, in order to improve the life chances of children in care.
At the current time, central government does not appear to be interested in addressing the challenges facing children’s social care – but we are. If you would like to get involved in helping your council to set the right level of funding for vulnerable children, then please get in touch.