“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” This quote, from Aaron Levenstein, business professor at a New York University, could apply equally well to the government’s adoption scorecards, the first of which were published this month.
Hackney council is a classic example. It came bottom of the table on one of the government’s primary measures: the average time taken from a child entering care to moving in with an adoptive family. Yet this was largely because the long-term foster family of one disabled child decided to adopt him. Kensington and Chelsea council suffered a similar experience, which also consigned them to the bottom five on this peformance indicator.
“We have a low rate of taking children into care, which means the children we place for adoption are from highly challenging backgrounds, often with complex special needs and disabilities,” says Alan Wood, Hackney’s corporate director for children’s services.
“It is always more challenging to find homes for children like this but we don’t give up on finding permanent homes for them. We acknowledge that has a negative effect on our figures.”
Easily distorted figures
Wood points out that Hackney only had seven children adopted last year because they have been successful at keeping children out of care. As a result, the figures are easily distorted by one case.
This fact concerns adoption teams around the country. Even authorities who scored well on this measure, such as Cornwall, Hartlepool and Bournemouth, are not confident they will be in the top five next year. Heather Freeman, adoption services team manager at Bournemouth, says: “We are happy with our scores and feel it is reflective of the service. But because you’re dealing with very small numbers it doesn’t take much to change the scores radically.”
Freeman is worried that councils will be tempted to prioritise timeliness over perseverance. “It would be easy to give up looking for a placement for a child earlier just so your scorecard figures would look better,” she says.
Martin Narey, the government’s adviser on adoption is adamant that scorecards are necessary to tackle delay. “The most pleasing thing for me when looking at the data was that those who were in the top 10% on these measures very often also had very low adoption breakdown rates,” he says. “This proves that speed need not come at the expense of finding the right placement.”
The real problem with the scorecards, according to Mark Rogers, chief executive at Solihull council, is the confusing nature of the results. “One council was in the top five on one measure and in the bottom five on another,” he says. “You’ve got some councils, rated outstanding by Ofsted, coming in the bottom five on some of these measures. How do you reconcile that?”
He continued: “If it was presented as part of a set of tools that were then linked to learning that would be different, but I do not believe that naming, and the inevitable shaming that follows, is going to improve behaviour, particularly in an area as complex as adoption.”
Authorities disagree over how the data will be interpreted by prospective adopters. Hartlepool was ranked in the top three councils when the government published its adoption league tables last year and Sally Robinson, assistant director of children’s services, says it did help increase interest from adoptive parents.
But Jack Cordery, head of children’s social care and psychology at Cornwall, which also performed well on the scorecards, gives it little credence.
“We are on an improvement notice and rated inadequate. I think the publicity around that is probably more severe then it will ever be around scorecards and it hasn’t affected the number of adoptive parents we’ve seen coming forward. Recruiting adopters is all about your recruitment strategy and making sure they know exactly what to expect.”
Although he acknowledges the ease with which a top-five council could suddenly find itself in the bottom five, Cordery is sanguine about the prospect.
“I agree these are very snapshot and blunt figures but they can also be indicative of problems. So as long as we have the space to put our case forward, ministers should be able to determine if there’s a real problem or not,” he says.
One voluntary adoption agency social worker in London agrees. “I can see why there might be concern but sometimes I think councils are a little too quick to blame the courts for all the delays.
“I’ve seen lots of cases where the delay is caused by adoption panels not being held regularly enough or shortages of social workers. Even just problems with the family-finding social worker and the child’s social worker not being able to combine their diaries to do a joint visit for months at a time. These are the sort of issues I’m hoping adoption scorecards might help sort out.”
Social workers reject government’s adoption reforms