How are children’s homes responding to criticism and an uncertain future?

The residential child care sector is facing big changes, amid a major government review. Judy Cooper finds out how providers are responding and what they believe needs to change

Ofsted data suggests failing homes have more than doubled

It’s been a tough fortnight for children’s homes. First, a damning BBC report found one in four children are placed in homes rated just ‘adequate’, or worse, ‘inadequate’, then ministers launched plans to overhaul the failing residential child care system and Ofsted released data showing the number of failing homes has more than doubled in the last year.

So, how seriously should we take Ofsted’s data, and how is the sector responding to the criticism and uncertain future?

Between April 2012 and March 2013 99 of the 1986 homes in England (5%) were rated ‘inadequate’, while 318 were rated ‘outstanding’ (16%). This is compared to the previous year where only 40 homes were rated ‘inadequate’ (2%) and 517 (26%) were rated ‘outstanding’.

Caution over comparisons

However, Ofsted has warned about comparisons, pointing out that it implemented some significant changes to the inspection regime for homes last year. One third of homes were also receiving their first full inspection since registering with Ofsted.

While next year’s inspection figures are expected to be more meaningful, the reality is that further changes to the inspection framework are likely following the government’s current review of the sector.

Ed Nixon, chief executive of Family Care Associates, says the constant changing of the goalposts has made life difficult for residential providers. “The childcare doesnt necessarily change, but its all the document rewriting and training that increases costs at a time when we have already had closures rather than reduce the quality of our care,” Nixon says.

Impact of missing incidents

Jonathan Stanley, chief executive of the Independent Childrens Homes Association (ICHA), believes a more sophisticated application of some of the inspection indicators is needed. “For example, if a child goes missing from a children’s home it weighs heavily against them in an Ofsted inspection,” Stanley tells Community Care.

“Yet a child might be placed in a children’s home because they have repeatedly gone missing from care before and good interventions may have been put in place to have reduced the number of missing incidents.

“It means children’s homes having to think very carefully about which children they accept because it could drastically impact their Ofsted rating,” he says.

Why isn’t Ofsted sharing more good practice data?

Stanley is also critical of Ofsted for not taking on an improvement role that might help failing homes get better quicker. “Yes, we have to make sure Ofsted is an independent regulator, but they also have the best data on where good practice is and what it is achieving. Surely it makes sense to distribute that?”

And, although the government has been vocal about its intention to improve standards, there is little recognition of the fact that children’s homes are often a means for cash-strapped councils to make savings, with many trying to eliminate their use of residential care or drive a hard bargain on the price of placements.

But while some argue children’s homes are being unfairly singled out, Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of The Who Cares? Trust, says the spotlight is needed to drive up standards. “Judging by the latest figures the new inspection regime is already revealing a truer picture of the challenges that lie ahead,” she says.

Children’s homes treated as ‘last resort’

She also points out that everyone knows residential care is often treated as a last resort by councils instead of an intervention that could turn their lives around.

Such commissioning tactics are not only impacting the ability to achieve better outcomes for children but may in fact be driving up costs overall. John Diamond, chief executive of Mulberry Bush specialist residential school, which is rated as outstanding by Ofsted, says the current preference for foster care or adoption has actually increased referrals to the school.

“We have quite a few children coming here now because they have had four or five foster placements or even adoptions that have broken down,” Diamond says. “It ends up being far more expensive than if the council had done a proper needs assessment and perhaps used us as a way of preparing these children for foster care instead of the other way round.”

Stanley and Diamond are positive about many of the recommendations coming out of the governments review in particular, efforts to improve the quality of the workforce but some, like the focus on the location of children’s homes are unhelpful without further commitment from ministers, Stanley says.

Location of homes is a red herring

“It is of little value to say that childrens homes should be located elsewhere without data or evidence to show us where they should be located,” he says. Instead, he believes councils should be forced to do a proper needs assessment on every child coming into care and the data collated so the needs of the countrys population can be seen.

“Only by doing this kind of analysis across the country will we have any idea of what kind of childrens homes we need and where they should be placed,” Stanley says. “The children who need residential care are not the same as those who need foster care and the two are not interchangeable. Yet the government has made no attempt to involve itself in anything like that.”

Diamond agrees the topic of location is a red-herring. Located in Oxford, he says Mulberry Bush frequently has children placed from as far away as Cumbria. “We’ve found that a family or child will rarely complain about the distance they have to travel if the quality of the home is high and it is obviously meeting the needs of the child. It all comes down to the quality of provision and appropriateness of placement,” he concludes.

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