Ofsted to inspect and register unregulated accommodation providers for 16–17-year-olds in care

Providers and campaigners express concern over national standards and inspection regime, which will come into force in 2023

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

The Department for Education will introduce national standards for currently unregulated accommodation for 16- and 17- year-olds in 2023, it announced this week.

Ofsted will inspect and register the providers of accommodation for older children, which the government now calls ‘supported’ provision instead of ‘independent’ or ‘semi-independent’, the DfE announced in its response to a consultation with the sector.

The inspectorate will develop the registration and inspection framework and begin registering providers from April 2023, with pilot inspections beginning in 2023 before they begin in earnest in 2024.

The national standards, which DfE will consult the sector on early next year, are on leadership and management, protection, support and accommodation.

While the first two mirrored those in the nine children’s home standards, the latter covered quality and purpose of care, children’s views, wishes and feelings, education, enjoyment and achievement, health and wellbeing, positive relationships, and care planning.

But both children’s homes providers and children’s rights campaigners criticised the DfE’s announcement, with some arguing that it should have required accommodation for 16- and 17-year-olds to meet the same standards as for those under 16.

The government banned the use of unregulated accommodation – settings that provide accommodation but not care – for children under 16 in September this year.

‘Inspect each home, not just providers’

The Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA) said it was concerned by the DfE’s decision for Ofsted to inspect providers of accommodation for older children rather than each individual home.

ICHA chief executive Peter Sandiford said it was important for Ofsted to inspect the location and management of each setting, which they can only do by visiting each home.

“A major strength of Ofsted’s current inspections of children’s homes is that they physically enter them, observe the operations, and speak to the children and young people,” he said.

“We know through experience that failing to do this enables poor practice to go unchallenged and children to be placed at risk. We are therefore at a loss to understand why it is not being offered to this similarly vulnerable client group.”

Sandiford also expressed concern about the delay in the DfE’s introduction of registration and inspection for older children’s homes until 2023.

“We believe there can be no delay as currently these providers, let alone settings, are unregulated with children in public care being again made vulnerable,” he said.

‘Inspections could miss poor practice’

Children’s rights charity Article 39 also criticised DfE’s decision to inspect providers rather than individual settings, calling the arrangements “second-rate”.

“This is despite respondents to the consultation warning that this [approach] risks poor practice being missed, and the voices of children not being heard,” said Article 39 director Carolyne Willow.

Article 39 brought a legal challenge against the government’s decision not to include 16- and 17-year-olds, who account for most unregulated placements, in the ban on such accommodation introduced in September.

Willow described the government’s proposed standards for 16- and 17-year-olds as “rudimentary” and “devoid of any requirement to provide care to children”.

She also raised concerns over DfE’s refusal to ban the placement of older children in properties alongside adults “who often have their own very profound difficulties and vulnerabilities”.

“I’m sure that, at some point in the future, we will collectively as a country look back to this time with huge regret and dismay and wonder what on earth possessed us to regulate the children’s care system to officially stop caring at age 16,” she said.

“There is no comfort in expecting this to be remedied at a later date, however, since many thousands of children will have suffered by then.”

 Ofsted: current provision is inconsistent

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said supported accommodation, rather than care, was right for some looked-after children and care leavers but said such provision “just isn’t consistent across the board”.

“New standards and oversight are absolutely necessary, so I’m pleased that Ofsted has been asked to develop a regulatory system and inspection framework for supported accommodation,” she said.

“All young people deserve to live somewhere they feel happy and safe, which is why we are developing a system that places the interests of young people at its heart.”

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the new inspection framework would enable Ofsted to “take action against poor quality or rogue providers of supported accommodation, some who value profit above the needs of the young people they look after, tarnishing the reputation of the thousands of dedicated people working in social care”.

The DfE will invest £142m over the next three years to support local authorities, providers, and Ofsted to introduce the changes to older children’s accommodation.

Funding for secure homes

The DfE also announced that £12m of the £259m announced at the spending review for children’s homes would be spent on secure provision over the next year.

This will include funding for consortia to plan new units in London and the West Midlands, where there is currently no secure provision for young people.

The DfE said this will be the first in several phases of capital investment up to 2025, which will also fund ‘step-down’ accommodation for children moving out of secure accommodation.

It will fund additional places in other children’s homes over the same period, the first wave of which follows a match-funded round of bids in July led by the DfE.

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