Fostering capacity still ‘nowhere near enough to meet demand’, despite small rise, warns Ofsted

Official statistics show 3% increase in filled places, from 2019-20, but with unavailable places also rising and an ageing population of carers, Ofsted warns of trouble for the future

Yvette Stanley
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted's national director for social care

Fostering capacity remains “not anywhere near enough to meet demand”, despite a small increase in capacity revealed by official statistics released today, Ofsted has warned.

The inspectorate estimated that there were 89,200 approved fostering places as of March 2020, 1% up on the figure a year previously of 88,370, based on data submitted by agencies. While filled places rose by 3% to 56,500, there was also an increase, from 15,465 to 16,555 (7%), in the number of approved places that were not available, for example, because of carers taking a break or due to the needs of children currently in placement.

The statistics come against a backdrop of year-on-year increases in the care population, and widespread evidence of substantial pressures on places, leading to children being placed far from home or in unregulated provision.

The figures also showed that two-thirds of carers were aged over 50, with a quarter over 60.

‘Storing up trouble for the future’

Commenting on the figures, Ofsted’s national director for regulation and social care, Yvette Stanley, said: “Although today’s statistics show a small rise in foster carers and places, there still isn’t anywhere near enough to meet demand. The difficulty in recruiting carers with the right skills and experience, along with what is potentially an aging carer population, is a mix that could be storing up trouble for the future.”

She said addressing the problem, as well as the urgent need for more residential provision, had to be a priority for the government’s long-awaited care review, which children’s minister Vicky Ford said last week would be launched imminently.

The figures follow last week’s report by Ofsted on the challenges of matching children with foster families. This found that the shortage of carers was the biggest barrier to successful matches, particularly for siblings, disabled children and teenagers, which meant that “making a decision about the best place for a child to live was often a tricky balancing act between looking for what was ideal and what was possible”.

The matching study – which was carried out last summer but whose findings were still relevant, said Ofsted – was based on case studies of 24 children and focus groups with professionals in four local authorities, meetings with independent fostering agencies and birth parents of children who had been fostered, and online surveys of children in foster care, carers, former foster children and fostering service managers.

The report stressed that there was much councils and agencies could do beyond recruitment, and social workers Ofsted spoke to were able to identify what worked and what could have gone better in terms of successful matching.

‘Little evidence’ good practice learned from

However, Ofsted found “little evidence…that this has translated into wider organisational learning that could improve practice across the whole service”. For example, meetings to consider learning from placement breakdowns were not always held, even when required by local authority policy.

It said there were several areas of practice that could improve, particularly in relation to making the matching process more child-centred. Over two-thirds of children in foster care who responded to Ofsted’s survey felt they had not been asked about their wishes and feelings before they moved into their foster home, while very few of those who were consulted felt their views had made a difference..

Ofsted said that, when children were involved, this helped family finders know what they were looking for in a foster family, help prospective carers know what was important to children and made it more likely that children would feel that decisions were being made in their best interests.

Also, it found that few survey respondents with past or current experience of care received information about their foster home before they moved in, with those that did receiving it too late to help them prepare for the move. This was despite the study finding that being informed helped children to settle, particularly when they were shown pictures of the family, empowered them to ask questions about their prospective carers and helped them start seeing themselves as part of the family.

Lack of information for carers

Similarly, carers felt that the information they received about the children coming to live with them was variable. Though, perhaps unsurprisingly, information sharing was worse when children were moved in an emergency, Ofsted found that, in several cases, information gaps were not filled after the child moved in. Carers also said they found information from previous carers of the child to be “invaluable”, but it was sometimes left to them to initiate liaison with previous carers, rather than it being facilitated by the local authority. The study also found that carers who were treated as professionals were typically more likely to feel empowered to ask questions about the child, including from previous carers, though in most areas this was embedded in practice.

Ofsted also said social workers needed to do more to help carers support contact between the child and their birth family, with fewer than half of carers surveyed saying their supervising social worker helped them to do so.

The inspectorate also said social workers and foster carers needed more training in helping trans-cultural matches work more effectively, with matches more likely to be influenced by carers’ availability, location, skills and experience, rather than ethnicity, religion or cultural background.

The report’s conclusions were broadly welcomed by fostering and care organisations.

Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of children in care charity Become, echoed Ofsted’s conclusion that matching need to be centred around a child’s background, wishes and needs and that this needed to be a theme in the care review, which the “government needs to bring forward with urgency”.

“Children and young people in care should always feel their views are important and are meaningfully listened to and acted upon – whether that’s by social workers, foster carers or other professionals in the system,” she added.

Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, said the charity welcomed the report’s focus on maintaining relationships with previous carers and that “relationships between children and their previous foster carers are too often overlooked, and more needs to be done to support these relationships”.

TACT, the largest voluntary fostering agency, said that it was pleased that the report highlighted the importance of providing carers with “balanced, full and asset-based information” about the child, with too often information being “partial and focused on negative factors”.

Government recruitment efforts ‘ignoring fostering’

However, TACT also stressed the problem of there being insufficient carers to provide suitable matches, and criticised the Department for Education’s emphasis on adoption – set out most recently in a speech last month by education secretary Gavin Williamson.

“It is clear that we need additional foster carers, but again and again the DfE are prepared to fund national advertising campaigns to encourage people to adopt while ignoring fostering,” said TACT. “At this unprecedented time when so many people are having to look to make a change in their lives it is an ideal opportunity for a national advertising campaign to promote fostering. Having a sufficient pool of foster families would have a very positive impact on matching and the on the lives of many vulnerable children.”

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) also emphasised the national shortage of carers in its response, saying this would be exacerbated by the pandemic, and needed to be addressed through the care review.

The extent of the pressures on the system was also highlighted by Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers.

“Certainly, the pressure on local authorities to find foster carers for children at short notice is one such significant pressure,” he said. “This may mean that local authorities can only consider those foster carers who have an appropriate vacancy that day, not even next week or soon afterwards. Children may then have little say in where they will be living. Matching can be seen as a luxury when time and availability is against a local authority, and that should never be the case.”

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