When Ofsted launched its single inspection framework for children’s services last month, there were more than a few changes. Along with the much-discussed tougher inspection standards, the framework included, for the first time ever, a specific judgement on leaving care services.
It is a significant move, but unlike judgements for child protection and looked-after children services, a local authority will not automatically be judged inadequate if its care leaving services are found to be inadequate.
Despite this, Wendy Lewington, director of policy at Voice, the advocacy service for children and young people in care, believes it will make a difference. “Ofsted inspections do influence council behaviour so at the very least it will serve to raise awareness of the issues.”
In the past year the Voice helpline has had a large increase in the number of calls to its helpline from care leavers in crisis situations, she says.
“It does feel that more and more care leavers are finding themselves in crisis, perhaps because of the funding cuts to local authorities.”
Inspection and monitoring alone will not improve services, however, Lewington adds. “Ofsted inspections are more of a snapshot approach and we also need systems to help local authorities understand the issues they have and empower care leavers to challenge them.
She cites a recent example of a 17-year-old girl called for a job interview who was frantic because she had no appropriate clothes and no money to buy them.
“She didn’t know she could get a clothing allowance from the local authority. When we challenged the local authority they said she had never asked. How could she ask for something she didn’t even know she was entitled to?”
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David Graham, national director of the National Care Leavers Association, is disappointed at how vague the new framework’s inspection criteria is.
“It doesn’t list any concrete outcomes nor how they might be measured which leaves it entirely up to the interpretation of an inspector,” he says. “We know there is a massive variation between inspectors on these issues.”
He points to the criteria that care leavers should have an enduring and stable relationship with a carer. “This is fundamental. It’s also something you can evaluate practically based on attachment theory, but instead it is left quite vague in the framework.”
“I would say the ingredients are there to make a difference to care leaving services, but the proof is in the pudding,” Graham adds.
Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, agrees that while the focus is sharper on care leavers in the new framework, inspection usually ends up monitoring processes. “The jury is out on whether this new inspection will actually do anything to support the journey to independence that care leavers have to make.”
Webb points out that many care leavers come into care in their mid-teens, stay a short time and are then returned to the same community they came from.
“It’s debatable whether our services currently put them onto a significantly different trajectory to achieve independence. We need to know if interventions have enabled these young people to do better as adults then they would otherwise have done. These are big questions and, in my experience, are rarely answered by inspection.”
Janet Rich, a trustee of the Care Leavers Foundation, says the nuances that often make up good or poor services may be difficult to pick up during inspection.
“Care leavers know they can’t have everything. But when you’re 19 and turning up at an office, if there’s someone there who knows your name, is happy to have a quick chat and ask how you’re getting on then even if the answer to your question is “no”, it makes a huge difference. The reality is that many are made to feel unwanted and that they are a nuisance.”
But she adds: “I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect Ofsted to pick up those things in an inspection, so I think there will always be a limit to the impact inspection can have on services and driving behaviour.”
Including young care leavers in inspection teams would help, Rich says. Graham hopes inspection will at least force cultural change at the frontline, something he says lobbying and strong words from ministers have failed to do so far.
He adds: “It would be churlish to say that nothing has changed over the past five years, but we recently had an event involving older care leavers and younger care leavers and it was dispiriting that all the problems the older ones had encountered were exactly the same problems the younger ones were dealing with.”
National Care Leavers Week 2013 runs from 24-30 October