Accommodation for 16 and 17-year-olds to face slimmer standards than children’s homes, under DfE plans

Government would set four standards for providers of currently unregulated accommodation, compared with nine for children's homes, with none covering care, health, education or relationships

Image of teenager looking sadly towards window (credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)
(credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)

By Alice Blackwell and Mithran Samuel

Currently unregulated accommodation for young people in care would face a slimmer set of standards than children’s homes, under consultative Department for Education plans to regulate them, issued this week.

The provision – which would be for those aged 16 and 17 – would be subject to four standards, compared with nine for children’s homes, under the proposals.

The four standards are on leadership and management, protection, support and accommodation. While the first two are mirrored in the children’s home standards, the latter also  cover quality and purpose of care, children’s views, wishes and feelings, education, enjoyment and achievement,  health and wellbeing, positive relationships and care planning.

The differences reflect the fact that unregulated accommodation – currently referred to as ‘independent’ or ‘semi-independent’ but which would be dubbed ‘supported accommodation’ in future – is designed to provide ‘support’ for young people to help their transition to independence, rather than ‘care’.

The DfE’s proposals, first outlined in February, are designed to provide regulation – including Ofsted inspection – of this provision, to prevent the placement of young people in unsuitable settings, such as caravan parks, and to ban their use for under-16s, while retaining their ‘independent’ character.

However, they have faced a barrage of criticism from children’s charities and sector bodies, who argue that this would discriminate against 16- and 17-year-olds – who make up the vast majority of those in unregulated accommodation – leave them subject to inadequate provision and enable councils to move looked-after children into cheaper provision when they turn 16. The children’s rights charity Article 39 has launched a legal challenge against the plan, which is due to come into force in September.

‘Independent provision the right option for some’

In its consultation document, the DfE said that, while for most looked-after children, their need for “suitable, safe and secure accommodation” would be delivered through foster care or a children’s homes, for some older children, a placement in independent or semi-independent living arrangements would be the best option to help them develop their independence before leaving care.

It said such provision was “not automatically the right choice for children aged 16 and 17” and that “where children of this age have needs that would best be met in a children’s home or foster care placement, that is where they should be placed”.

The proposed standards were designed to ensure “a high-quality form of provision in the care system focused on supporting older children to develop their independence”, in the context of increasing numbers of older children coming into care.

It said that while councils were currently required to check that independent provision (such as flats or bedsits) and semi-independent provision (such as hostels or foyers) were suitable for the young person before placing them there, “the absence of national standards and independent regulation of this sector has led to inconsistencies in the quality of provision”.

The DfE said it expected the change to lead to a shift in the market for independent and semi-independent provision, with some providers existing and others joining.

Difference between care and support

As any setting that delivers “care and accommodation, wholly or mainly for children” must register as a children’s home under the Care Standards Act 2000, a key purpose of the new standards is to establish a clear distinction between settings providing ‘care’ and those providing only ‘support’, with the latter registering as ‘supported accommodation’ rather than as a ‘children’s home’.

It said there was currently confusion over the distinction and proposed using indicators drawn up by Ofsted to determine which provision should register as a children’s home to determine the difference (some of which are given below).

INDICATORS YES NO
Can young people go out of the establishment
without staff’s permission?
Supported accommodation Care – likely to require children’s home registration
Do young people have full control of their own
finances?
Supported accommodation Care – likely to require children’s home registration
Do young people have control over what they
wear and the resources to buy clothes?
Supported accommodation Care – likely to require children’s home registration
Are young people in charge of meeting all of their
health needs
Supported accommodation Care – likely to require children’s home registration

Four rather than nine standards

On the standards themselves, the leadership and management standard is similar to the equivalent in the children’s homes regulations, requiring the provider to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of staff, with the right skills and experience. However, while the children’s home standards require the provider to ensure continuity of care, this is not in the proposed standards for supported accommodation. Unlike the children’s homes ones, these would require the provider to ensure that young people were aware of their entitlements and, where possible, encouraged to access them.

The protection standard mirrors the children’s home equivalent in a number of ways, including by requiring staff to have the skills needed to identify and act upon risk or harm. However, it differs in other respects, for example, having no equivalent to the requirement that “the home’s day-to-day care is arranged and delivered so as to keep each child safe and to protect each child effectively from harm”.

The proposed accommodation standard would require the provider to give each young person a lockable bedroom or self-contained area equipped to meet their needs, with space for personal possessions, access to “basic essentials such as bedding, personal hygiene products and eating utensils” and a “comfortable space”, whether private or shared.

And the proposed support standard would require the provider to give each young person a support plan, based on referral information and consultation with them, and a formal plan for them to move on to more independent living, and to enable them to take the lead in their support and “maintain appropriate and safe relationships with family and friends”.

Settings or provider-based inspections

As well as asking for views on the proposals for distinguishing care and support and the standards, the consultation also asked respondents for their thoughts on whether Ofsted should register provision on an individual setting basis, as with children’s homes, a provider-wide basis or in another way.

A settings-based system would be more stringent, with Ofsted carrying out full inspections of each setting, with responsive monitoring visits in between these, backed up by enforcement action in cases of poor performance, including restricting admissions where there were significant concerns. A provider-based system would involve Ofsted looking at the systems the organisation had put in place to meet the national standards and inspecting a sample of settings, with any one setting inspected much less frequently than under the settings-based model.

In response to the consultation, the British Association of Social Workers England reiterated its support for unregulated accommodation to be banned for all looked-after children.

But a spokesperson added: “We recognise that immediately banning unregulated care homes, despite the harms and risks associated with them, would lead to a short-term lack of placements for children and young people leaving care settings and in turn may cause further crisis and trauma in their lives.”

“In this consultation we’ll be calling for the government to make significant, long-term investment in children and young people across the country. This requires support services for vulnerable children and care leavers requiring urgent resources, both during and beyond the pandemic.”

Rachel de Souza, children’s commissioner for England, said:

“All children in care should receive care until 18. Where children are moved into unregulated accommodation it is vital that there are better standards for the quality of accommodation and support they receive.

“I look forward to working with the Government and the Care Review team to make the standards as effective as possible, and to bring about long term, transformational change to children’s experiences of the care system.”

‘A care system on the cheap’

However, Article 39 gave a much more critical response. Its director, Carolyne Willow, said that “the proposed care-less standards are woefully inadequate compared to the existing quality standards for children’s homes.”

Accusing ministers of “running a care system for very vulnerable children on the cheap”, she added: Children are not coming into care simply for a roof over their head; they need care and nurturing to help them recover from past abuse, neglect and trauma as well as to help them do well in their studies and prepare for a good future life.

“Ministers have deliberately omitted care so that providers of unregulated accommodation don’t have to follow the children’s homes quality standards. We recommended having a single set of quality standards, with possible modifications for homes which wholly or mainly care for older children.”

In its response, the Independent Children’s Homes Association said that the standards should recognise children’s unique needs “and enable the flexibility and the safeguarding required”. It added that many children should be able to stay in their existing children’s home when they turned 16, though others would benefit from a move into semi-independent provision, with all “subject to registration with quality standards designed to ensure children’s safeguarding and other needs are met”.

The DfE has issued separate consultations for local authorities and providers, and for children and young people, which close on 19 July 2021.

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