Ofsted report finds commissioners may be setting some children’s homes up to fail

Ofsted's annual report finds commissioners may be setting some children's homes up to fail, but, overall, standards are on the up. Molly Garboden reports

Ofsted’s annual report finds commissioners may be setting some children’s homes up to fail, but, overall, standards are on the up. Molly Garboden reports

In an era of sweeping cuts and tighter budgets councils are looking for children’s homes that can prove their effectiveness in terms of outcomes. Many will be looking at Ofsted ratings for guidance.

However, John Goldup (pictured below), director of development for social care at Ofsted, points out there are lessons in the regulator’s annual report, out this week, for commissioners of children’s homes as well as providers.

One of the most common weaknesses identified by inspectors in inadequate children’s homes was admitting children and young people whose needs could not actually be met by the home.

Goldup says that while no one can guarantee a perfect match, children’s homes and councils need to improve in this area.

“There is an onus on homes, and an absolute onus on placing authorities, to consider this carefully,” he says. “One of the clearer regulatory requirements of homes is that they have to have a statement of purpose. That statement must be clear about what the home is able to provide, what it’s seeking to achieve and the characteristics of the children and young people for whom the home is designed. Admissions need to be considered with regard to this statement of purpose.”

Goldup says homes will admit children who do not fit their profile because of a “misplaced sense” of needing to help a vulnerable child, regardless of specific circumstances or because they feel pressured to maximise occupancy rates.

Meanwhile, commissioners, he says, need to be aware of the difficulties of urgent cases.

“Authorities can face some very challenging Friday afternoon cases of a child at risk of being on the streets and they need to find a placement right away. But the primary onus on local authorities is to make sure they’re putting young people in placements capable of meeting their individual needs.”

This is why, he says, Ofsted has remodelled its inspection framework to ensure inspectors now spend as much time as possible talking to the children and young people living in the home. “Not only will this give inspectors a better idea of the quality of provision but it should also be able to help local authority commissioners determine whether a home will be a good match for a particular child or young person.”

Ofsted inspections have had a lot of criticism for their alleged tick-box approach and failure to focus on quality. Critics also say Ofsted fails to support improvement. Last year Goldup admitted these were among reasons for overhauling the inspection framework for children’s homes. Now he is keen to highlight this year’s increase in the number of children’s homes being rated as good or outstanding (see box) as evidence that Ofsted is already playing a role in improvement.

“I don’t think this is down to luck or any new policies because it’s actually a year-on-year trend – a sustained improvement over a period of time,” he says. “First and foremost it’s down to the hard work and dedication of the people working in children’s homes. I do think inspection’s got a contribution to make as well though. I wouldn’t say it’s the key driver, but I do think it’s played a part. It very much supports improvement.”

Ofsted highlighted at least one area for priority action in 49% of the homes inspected this year, the most common being for behaviour management. “Many of these actions were concerned with real weaknesses in terms of direction, policy and culture around what’s accepted and what’s not accepted,” says Goldup.

“Another issue we’ve identified is problems in recording. This makes it difficult to get a grip on what’s really going on. We’re particularly concerned about children being subject to inappropriate forms of physical restraint. It should only be used as a last resort and it’s only lawful to use in very specific circumstances. But often the evidence needed to track-back about this practice is so poor that it’s hard to make confident judgements about the quality of some of that work.” Goldup says some homes were marked down for this reason.

He is also worried about the 10% of homes identified as fluctuating in quality. Ofsted’s annual report puts it down to the length of time a home has been open. During the first five years of operation, a home usually improves steadily, learning from its early experience. After the five-year mark is hit, however, quality of provision often starts to decline.

Maintaining a good rating

A similar pattern can be identified in those homes that pull themselves up from a poor Ofsted rating. After receiving a good rating, many slip back down to inadequate the following year. Ofsted says that many homes take on board inspector recommendations following a bad rating but they fail to ensure the changes are sustainable.

One of the more troubling findings of this year’s report is the postcode lottery when it comes to children’s homes. While 11% of children’s homes in London were rated inadequate, just 3% received this rating in the South East and 2% in the West Midlands and South West.

“The obvious question is what lies behind this finding and the honest answer is, for the moment, we don’t know,” says Goldup. “This is the first time we’ve tracked this data and what it does is present us with the clear challenge to do a piece of work to understand the situation better. But it’s in the nature of this exercise that the more we learn, the more we realise we don’t understand.”

Key Ofsted findings

● In the past year, 73% of children’s homes in England were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. This is an improvement on the 64% given these ratings in both 2008-9 and 2007-8.

● Ofsted issued at least one action in 49% of the homes inspected this year. The most common areas for action were in behaviour management.

● 10% of children’s homes in England have a noticeably varied pattern of inspection outcomes. This is a slight improvement on 2007-8 and 2008-9, when this was the case for 12% and 11% of homes, respectively, but Ofsted says this figure is still “too high”.

● As of 31 August 2010, there were 2,053 children’s homes in England.

● 12,000 children and young people were accommodated by these homes.

● Over the course of 2009-10, 150 children’s homes left the sector and 245 joined. This led to a net gain of 144 places.

● There are 16 secure children’s homes in England.

Key factors identified across outstanding children’s homes by inspectors

● High quality staffing, with stable core permanent staff.

● Listening to children and young people’s views.

● Strong management systems.

● Training available for all staff.

● High standards of record-keeping on issues such as health and restraining.

● A strong focus on success in education.

Key factors identified across inadequate children’s homes

● Serious weakness in organisation.

● Problems keeping children and young people safe within the homes.

● Poor management and leadership.

● High staff turnover.

● Poor record-keeping.

● Admittance of children and young people whose needs could not be met by the homes.

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