Care Matters green paper: conference hears debate ignite on future for children in care

Senior practitioners, council lead members and policy-makers met last week to share their thoughts on the big ideas in the children in care green paper at the closing event of the Care Matters consultation process. Community Care reports on the working groups’ deliberations

The future of the care population:

Working group chair: Martin Narey, chief executive, Barnardo’s.

The task: Develop a vision for the future of the care population.

The debate: Any idea that the care population will inevitably shrink is taking something of a battering. To begin with, there is a general consensus that young offenders should be reclassified as children in care and brought under the remit of the Department for Education and Skills, thereby enlarging the care population. There is also the knock-on effect of the green paper’s proposals to allow looked-after children to remain in care until they are 18, and allow children to live with their foster carers up to the age of 21 to consider. “If you extend the time they are in care then the numbers rise, so how does that square?” asks one manager.

Martin Narey believes that one way forward might be to consider adoption earlier, when the chances of success are higher, rather than striving for years to keep young children and birth parents together. However, there was a common feeling that change in this area would require the support of guardians, who are reluctant to consider removing children from families and whose views carry more weight in court.

The way forward: The working group will undoubtedly make some recommendations about the importance ofstrengthening family support services – possibly involving better use of the voluntary sector – to keep children out of care in the first place. But they may also call for a blurring of boundaries between being in and out of care, along the lines of the shared care approach used with disabled children.

Social care practices:

Working group chair: Julian Le Grand, professor of social policy, London School of Economics.

The task: Consider the pros, cons and practical implications of councils contracting with independent practices of social workers to run services for children in care.

The debate: Despite news from the working group and the children’s minister that the concept of six to eight professionals working together in an employee-owned operation is popular among some frustrated front-line practitioners, most managers remain opposed to the idea.

Aside from their disapproval at the idea of making profits from services for children in care, their opposition is four-fold. First, they feel the government has rushed to a solution without analysing the cause of the problem (namely limited resources); secondly, they don’t feel that it is justified to look outside local authorities when re-organising and investing in in-house teams, building on best practice and the lead professional role could equally provide the answer; thirdly, they are worried about the negative impact on the social workers and children in care left behind if social care practices poach experienced staff and cherry pick cases; and finally, they are worried about having statutory accountability for children they are no longer responsible for.

Private sector leaders, however, point out that independent provider models already exist in both adults’ and children’s services, so the proposals should not be such a bone of contention.

The way forward: The working group has agreed that if any social care pilot does take place it must be benchmarked against best practice in local authorities to provide a fair comparison.

Opinion within the working group appears to be divided on independent practices – particularly on the issue of whether or not they could be profit-making. If any pilot does go ahead, children’s minister Beverley Hughes predicts the earliest it could launch would be next summer to allow for the necessary legislation to be passed.

Placement reform:

Working group chair: Lord Herbert Laming, Victoria Climbié Inquiry chair.

The task: Identify ways of reforming foster care and residential care to achieve excellence in both.

The debate: Care Matters makes several suggestions for placement reform. The most controversial of these involves the development of a national “tiered” model of placement types, underpinned by a qualifications framework for foster and residential carers and varied levels of financial reward.

However, some local authorities that tried a similar system in the past warn that the need to save money led to specialist foster carers ending up with children with fewer needs, while less skilled carers were allocated children with more complex needs.

Providing further training for foster carers may also not be the solution it appears to be. Some foster carers, regardless of how much training they undergo, may never become any more skilled at their roles while others flourish with minimal training.

If adopting the approach mooted in the green paper means moving a child down a tier as their needs diminish, this would introduce unnecessary placement disruption and would not reward their foster carer for their hard work.

Real placement choice for young people could also be a cause of concern for independent fostering agencies, who would be unhappy if they had empty beds. To tackle this, independent providers could band together and recommend each other if their own placements are not suitable. However, some practitioners believe that having infinite choice is not the answer to finding the correct placement. For them, the solution lies in conducting a quality assessment in the first place.

The way forward: With Lord Laming critical of the “polarised” discussions between residential homes and foster homes, it is clear that the future holds a place for both types of placements. “Both will need to be effective, but they will only succeed if they are resourced adequately,” he insists.

Best practice in schools:

Working group chair: Dame Pat Collarbone, executive director, Training and Development Agency for Schools.

The task: Ensure all children in care receive the best possible education.

The debate: Children in care only make up a tiny proportion of a school’s population, so schools are often not geared up for them.

Schools should place accountability for looked-after pupils within senior management, but there is a feeling that responsibility for the actual work with them could be taken up by anyone with the energy and commitment. A designated teacher should also take on an advocate and mentoring role.

No-exclusion policies for children in care, such as that introduced by the London Borough of Lewisham, can encourage schools to put in place layers of support for this group of children. Early intervention with minor difficulties, such as missed homework, should be the norm rather than waiting for problems to escalate.

Education is not the sole responsibility of schools. Learning begins at home, and there is a strong feeling that foster carers and children’s residential workers need to take a more active role in educating young people in skills for life, citizenship, work and in raising aspirations.

The way forward: The working group will emphasise the need to recognise each child’s individual needs and not limit measures of success to academic qualifications.

Dame Collarbone will also be taking back to her colleagues a strong message about the need for schools to be made statutory partners in the safeguarding, welfare promotion and education of children in care, and in contributing to a corporate culture of ambition.

Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care

● The Care Matters: the Next Steps conference was organised by Community Care and the National Children’s Bureau on behalf of the Inter-Agency Group, which represents 13 groups responsible for, or involved in, the care and protection of children and their families.

This article appeared in the magazine under the headline “This matters”

This weeks other feature articles:

Involving service users in mental health services in Wales (Adult sector)

Homelessness and hospitals: what happens after discharge? (Adult sector)

Safeguarding children at licenced premises in Sheffield. A Community Care Award winner

Independent social workers in demand (Children’s sector)

Wales and the Children Act




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