Fostering and adoption are seen as the government’s favoured outcomes for looked-after children. But the Care Matters white paper makes it clear that ministers still see residential child care as a positive option for some young people.
Earlier this month, this view was bolstered further with the publication of the first national contract for the placement of children in residential children’s homes. Although it only has voluntary status, the contract has been well received by both commissioners and providers and is expected to be widely used for new placements, as well as for existing placements when they come up for review.
Many local authorities are working to individual separate contracts with providers, resulting in a complicated system full of duplication. The new contract will standardise arrangements and make the system more transparent.
Jonathan Stanley, manager of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, says that many councils are contracting with providers rather than actually commissioning. Research from March 2007 for the Greater London Association of Directors of Social Services backs this up showing that 85% of placements were spot-purchased.
Some spot placements will always be necessary. But providers and commissioners expect demand for these to fall sharply once the new contract comes fully into force and councils increase commissioning with providers on a regional basis.
“Commissioning means that you have to know what the needs of the children are who are going to be placed there, you need to know about the places that are available, and then you need to match them,” says Stanley. “Commissioning is about being proactive rather than reactive.”
It is widely recognised that having a placement strategy for looked-after children, matching needs to placements, is best practice. However, a recent government-commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that few councils had any such strategy.
Bradford Council is an exception. About three years ago it audited its children’s homes provision and formed a commissioning strategy to fill the gaps it identified. The strategy involved the council taking the unusual step of building a number of new children’s homes and commissioning three providers on a block basis.
“It involved ensuring we had [enough] capacity in [in-house] children’s homes and then sorting out partnerships to create capacity outside the local authority,” says Denis Gale, Bradford’s principal commissioning manager (children).
Unlike traditional contracts, the new contract looks at the outcomes of the children being looked after rather than at the requirements of the service being provided, and has strong ties to the Every Child Matters agenda.
John Lees, programme manager for children’s services at the South West Centre of Excellence, welcomes this focus.
He says: “The previous contracts came before Every Child Matters, and they don’t do much about outcomes. The real strength of the new contract is that it focuses on these.”
Monitoring arrangements included in the document will enable intelligence on the outcomes and the way they are achieved to be gathered. This information will be highly valuable to councils and, in turn, lead to more informed commissioning, says Stanley. It is also set to be fed back to Ofsted, which is currently reviewing its inspection framework for residential care.
The contract is based on young people’s experiences of being in care, with the idea that they would be able to read it and recognise it is about them and the care they receive. A children’s version is going to be produced, alongside versions in Braille and using symbols to ensure it is accessible to all young people.
However, despite being young person-centred, there is recognition by the government that the document fails to adequately address some of the needs of disabled children, those with mental health problems and those who self-harm, and work is due to be carried out to rectify this oversight during the first year.
Recent years have seen a rise in the number of small children’s homes also providing education, and the contract reflects this by covering both.
“The reason we have got this is that many young people come into this with both things need to be met in one place,” says Stanley. “This is to enable there to be one process.”
The contract also comes in against a backdrop of Gershon efficiency savings councils are required to make. Although the contract does not cover in-house services, Stanley expects councils will want to ensure their own services are on par with those provided elsewhere, leading to a “level playing field” of provision that will also address the issue of best value.
For providers, the new document should create a much simpler system and bring for the first time a common set of standards setting out exactly what is expected of them. Stanley says providers are having to undergo many monitoring visits from separate councils. But the new arrangements could reduce this to a single visit, with different councils being able to form regional monitoring bodies and share information.
Although the document omits stating what the prices of services should be, it does set down clear rules about what is covered in the cost of a placement and what is extra.
Lees says that before the contract the situation on pricing has been “incredibly confused”, with councils often receiving bills for things they thought they were already paying for.
Gale agrees that, in the past, the situation has been blurry. “It’s fair to say there’s been a history of it being unclear what was included and what wasn’t,” he says.
The launch of the contract follows a separate contract for local authorities and non-maintained and independent special schools which was launched in 2004 and is now used by about 120 out of 150 local authorities. It is that level of take-up which will be key to the new contract’s success in bringing about change.
“We have the contract, now we need people to use it,” says Lees.
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This article appeared in the 22 November issue under the headline “Not just a prettyplacement”