The problem

The best outcomes for children in care are achieved when Children’s Services departments within local authorities tailor their support to meet each child or young person’s unique needs.

However, in Children’s Services departments across the country, the links between needs and the level of spending are weak, and there is often no evidence that the best outcome has been delivered. This is clearly not intentional.

Staff working in children and young people’s services always want to deliver the best outcomes for their users. However, without a clear and shared understanding of needs, costs and outcomes, there is a significant impact on children’s life chances.

Further, there is a significant communication breakdown as social workers, procurement professionals and providers cannot describe the nuanced and complex requirements of children and young people in care using a shared language. A new approach is needed.

The context

As a country, we spend over £4 billion per your looking after children in care. This works out at over £26 million per year on average for each council. The children and young people who need care have ever-increasing complex needs, but there is not the accompanying development in the market to provide for these needs.

As a result, there is little connection between the individual needs of children, the desired outcomes we (and they) want, and the resources provided to support them. This means there is no correlation between the amount a council spends and the outcomes that are measured – a situation that is not financially sustainable or beneficial to the children in care.

The impact

Councils are now finding that they are investing significant funds in young people that are not delivering the best outcomes for each individual. In many cases, there is a focus on the short-term containment of risk, rather than on a longer-term view of creating futures.

The lack of a true understanding of individual children’s needs means that there are now scenarios where no carers or placements can be found for children with particular requirements. It also means that there is an inability to create the right supply for emergency and last-minute placements. This has resulted in a market which is not guided and directed to support the needs of children in care; a market where commissioning relationships with providers have now broken under the strain.

The solution

iMPOWER’s Valuing Care programme helps 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.

By better capturing and reviewing the needs of looked after children, councils can make better decisions on support, placements and commissioning. We have been working with forward-thinking councils to understand the link between cost and need; an example of this work is shown below:

Graphs similar to the example above are generated by assessing cases against a needs framework developed with each council.

For less than the cost of an average residential placement, Valuing Care enables greater transparency and fairness over how resources are used across the system to improve the life chances of children in care. In doing so, it makes sure that every pound spent makes a positive difference.

Valuing Care enables councils to:

  • Assess, analyse and consistently codify the needs of children and young people in care
  • Show patterns of need by prevalence and complexity
  • Understand how resources are currently used to meet these needs
  • Identify actions to reduce cost without harming outcomes
  • Develop a commissioning approach and tools that support a targeted allocation of resources, linked to needs and a demonstration of outcomes
  • Review and strengthen their Sufficiency Strategy based on evidence of need, and develop a clear action plan to deliver it
  • Work with a range of stakeholders including social workers, commissioning, finance and providers to strengthen placement decisions and improve their outcomes
  • Provide a new footing for provider relationships, helping to  re-shape the market
  • Apply behavioural insight to support the required change in culture.

The results

“Valuing care gives us a tool to describe and quantify need. It looks across the whole child rather than focusing on particular, usually narrow, areas of risk. It will, over time, help us evidence reduced need, hopefully across all our outcome domains.

It’s a great tool for our social workers to think about, and record, the needs of their children and we are starting to run reports which give us a ‘needs profile’ across our care population, something we have never been able to do – relying instead on anecdote about complexity. We also anticipate that it will lead to new conversations with children and young people, with our own foster carers and with independent providers.”

Marion Ingram, Operations Director Specialist Services, Hertfordshire County Council


“Through this project we’ve seen the importance of changing the way that social workers, commissioners and providers think about and approach providing care and support to children and young people. The tools and methodology developed through Valuing Care give us the means to capture and use intelligence about our children in a different way.

But what really made the difference was us challenging ourselves to think differently about care placements and support. It is helping us to put the focus fully on the child and their outcomes, needs and life chances in a way that transcends our ‘day jobs’ as social workers, commissioners and providers and procedural boundaries. This is a change that we have witnessed at all levels of the organisation – from frontline officers to senior managers.”

Sue Harrison, Director of Children’s Services, Central Bedfordshire Council

Information for providers

A new approach to care placements can only be successful if it draws on the knowledge and experience of providers.

We recognise that many providers have already established systems for needs assessment, allocation of support, and measuring outcomes.  However, we believe that unless such an approach is applied universally, the impact will be limited – there will continue to be children and young people who cannot be placed, and sub-optimal placement decisions being taken.  Local authorities must address this, and most importantly, they must work with providers to do so.

This isn’t about reducing prices; it is about improving the matching of placements, re-shaping the market to meet need, and enabling both providers and commissioners to increase the positive impact of achieving outcomes.

Valuing Care has several specific benefits for providers:

  • Increases local authorities’ appreciation of the important role of providers in determining life outcomes
  • Improves information on and understanding of a child at the point of placement decisions, enabling better matching, initial support, and informed pricing discussions
  • Improves balance in initial assessments of a child, beyond presenting risk
  • Helps strengthen relationships with commissioners, beyond what procurement solutions enable, giving access to information that supports providers with strategic planning and development of provision
  • Provides an opportunity to explore new models of working with authorities, which could lead to reduced provider risk
  • Provides an opportunity to learn ‘what works’ more broadly across the sector.

Provider participation is a vital part of the Valuing Care programme and we would welcome your feedback and involvement. To get involved or share your views, please contact us.


Valuing Care brochure

iNSIGHT articles

Children’s placements: switching from lottery to logic
Alastair Thompson, 25 April 2018

Accountability in children’s care placements is only part of the equation
Ebony Hughes, 9 March 2018

Ensuring that care leavers are ‘life-ready’
Zoe Appleton, 16 February 2018

Fostering Stocktake: valuing foster carers
Alastair Thompson, 7 February 2018

Let’s change the conversation on children in care
Alastair Thompson, 31 January 2018

Valuing children’s care
Olly Swann, 26 January 2018

Putting children’s needs first will help reform the care placement system
Ebony Hughes, 28 November 2017

Reflections on the Fostering Stocktake Evidence Review
James Edmondson, 8 September, 2017

We are failing our Looked After Children
James Edmondson, 29 August 2017

DfE’s fostering ‘stocktake’
Alastair Thompson, 17 August 2016

Children’s Services Funding is Too Important For This Guessing Game
Alastair Thompson, 3 December 2014

Media articles

Councils face huge bills as foster carers jump ship to private agencies
Anna Bawden, The Guardian, 30 January 2018

A broken market
Olly Swann, The MJ, 9 August 2017

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