Ofsted will introduce a separate judgment for care leavers in council inspections to help understand their “specific needs and experiences” better.
The decision came on the back of a consultation, published in June, that saw 131 out of 141 respondents – including practitioners, sector leaders and researchers – endorse Ofsted’s proposal.
Until now, the experiences and progress of care leavers have been inspected alongside those of children in care, but from next month each will be judged separately.
To be judged as outstanding, councils will have to demonstrate consistently good performance in relation to criteria including addressing care leavers’ health and emotional wellbeing, relationships and education and employment.
Consultation respondents said the judgment would give care leavers a “prominent” voice in inspections, encourage councils to prioritise them and help identify what was working well and what needed to improve.
“Care leavers are not always given the profile they deserve,” said Ofsted’s national director for social care, Yvette Stanley.
“The support for the judgment shows how important it is that care leavers are given a distinct focus, so we can gain a better understanding of their specific needs and experiences.”
Criteria for care leaver services
Under the judgment, councils will be assessed against the following criteria:
- Relationships and participation: this includes social workers and personal advisers engaging proactively with care leavers and them having strong social networks, enduring into adulthood, that they can rely upon, preventing loneliness.
- Health and emotional wellbeing: this encompasses practitioners understanding care leavers’ emotional wellbeing, including the potential impact of trauma, and councils working well with health partners to ensure good access to the services they need.
- Local offer for care leavers: the offer must meet care leavers’ needs, including those of specific groups such as former unaccompanied children, be based on effective consultation with young people and be monitored by councils’ corporate parenting boards.
- Making good decisions for care leavers: young people should be actively involved in creating plans for their future, created sufficiently early to meet their needs and built on each young person’s existing care and personal educational plans.
- Helping and protecting: care leavers are helped to protect themselves from all forms of bullying, discrimination and harassment, including stigma around being care experienced, and councils should work effectively to address risks around offending, exploitation and substance misuse.
- Employment, education and training: councils should work effectively with partners to secure a range of employment, education and training opportunities for care leavers, and support them to continue in, or return to, education or training.
- Support into adulthood: young people leave care at a time and pace that is right for them, having had enough time to develop a trusting relationship with their PA, are supported to live with or close to those important to them, in a secure and stable place that best meets their needs, and have effective pathway plans, setting out clearly how they will be supported to achieve their goals.
Care leavers lack ‘everyday life skills’
The judgment’s introduction follows the report of an Ofsted survey of care leavers, which found one in three had felt they had left care too early.
Several of the 181 respondents reported that they did not feel they had the skills they needed to live independently, which, according to Ofsted, led some to get into debt, lose tenancies or not be able to afford travel or rent.
Over a quarter of care leavers also hadn’t met their personal adviser (PA) until they were 18 or older, and 23% had said their local authorities hadn’t involved them at all in plans and decisions made in preparation for them to leave care.
NEET rates remain disproportionately high
The Department for Education’s (DfE) latest figures on looked-after children in England showed a reduction, from 41% to 38%, in the proportion of care leavers not in education, employment or training (NEET), in the year to March 2022.
However, this was disproportionately high compared with the 11% of all young people in that age group who were NEET.
The report also showed that the proportion of care leavers whom local authorities had stayed in touch with had increased progressively since 2018 for those aged 18-21, and now ranged from 89% among 21-year-olds to 95% among 18-year-olds. However, it had fallen among the relatively small number of 17-year-old care leavers, from 77% in 2018 to 68% in 2022.
‘Care experienced’ vs ‘care leavers’
Despite the overwhelming support for Ofsted’s proposal, some respondents expressed concerns about the judgment’s implementation.
According to Ofsted, there was a “general view” that young people should be referred to as ‘care experienced’ rather than ‘care leavers’, to acknowledge that a young person’s experience in care continues to influence them into adulthood.
Ofsted said that, while it would predominantly use ‘care leavers’ because it reflected young people’s legal status, it may refer to ‘care experienced’ people in inspection reports due to the preferences of respondents, including young people.
Some respondents also warned the separate judgment may lead to leaving care services being seen as separate from wider children’s services and undermine long-term planning for children while in care. In response, Ofsted said its evaluation criteria covered how children in care are prepared to leave care, and how care leavers were so prepared when they were in care.
A few concerns were also received about the short timeframe between Ofsted announcing the new judgment and its implementation. However, Ofsted said much of what was set out in the judgment was already contained in the existing merged assessment of care leaver and children in care services and constituted a widely shared of view of good practice.
Hope that judgment ‘will improve accountability of councils’
Looked-after children and care leavers’ charity Become’s chief executive, Katharine Sacks-Jones, said she hoped the judgment would “lead to greater accountability from local authorities on how they are meeting the practical and emotional needs of the young people leaving their care, who are often expected to become independent overnight before they are ready”.
She added: “Just because a young person is 18 does not mean they no longer need meaningful help with education, employment, housing and relationships, among other things…Whist this is a positive step, we now urgently need to see action from central government to end the care cliff once and for all”
Ofsted said it would review the implementation of the separate judgment before the end of next year.