The number of mainstream fostering households in England has shrunk for the second consecutive year, despite the country’s growing care population.
There was a net loss of 1,045 mainstream household in 2022-23 on the back of a fall of 1,275 in 2021-22, showed Ofsted’s annual data collection on fostering, published last week.
This means there has been a 6% fall, to 35,005, in the number of mainstream households in England over the past two years, with the bulk of the fall (1,660 out of 2,320) being among local authority foster families.
While the number of households of family and friends carers has grown over this time, from 8,045 to 8,400, these carers look after specific children and their increase has been far exceeded by the fall in the number of mainstream foster families.
Recruitment and retention issues
Ofsted’s data revealed issues with both the recruitment and retention of foster carers.
The number of households applying to foster fell only slightly, from 8,280 to 8,010, between 2021-22 and 2022-23, but this was well below the 2020-21 figure (11,235) and is the lowest total in several years, said the regulator.
And, for the second year in a row, one in eight of the mainstream households that had approved status during 2022-23 had deregistered by the end of the year (5,125 of 40,130).
The fostering data was reflected in the latest looked-after children statistics, released a few days later, which showed the care population has continued to grow year on year, increasing by 2% in 2022-23, to 83,840.
Falling share of looked-after children being fostered
The proportion of children in foster placements fell from 73% to 68% from 2018-23, with those placed in children’s homes or supported accommodation rising from 11% to 17% over the same period.
And despite the fall in the proportion of fostering placements overall, there has been growth in the share of family and friends foster placements over this time, from 13% to 15% of the total.
This year’s statistics follow the publication of the Department for Education’s children’s social care strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love, under which it has:
- Pledged to invest £27m in recruiting and retaining foster carers from 2023-25.
- Increased the national minimum fostering allowance by 12.43% – above inflation – in April 2023 – and ended a 20-year freeze in tax relief levels for carers.
- Launched a recruitment and retention programme in the North East in September this year.
- Promised to deliver a recruitment and retention programme across over 50% of councils, with the next regional campaigns due to launch in April 2024.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We are taking a wide range of action to support new and existing foster parents by raising financial allowances above inflation and reducing tax rates to ensure they have more money in their pocket.
“We are also investing £27m to deliver a fostering recruitment and retention programme so foster care is available for more children.”
Call for more urgent government action
However, council and fostering leaders urged more and faster government action to tackle foster care shortages in the light of the Ofsted data.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) called for “a nationally developed and funded foster care recruitment and retention campaign without delay”, focused on the difference fostering makes to children’s lives.
“We cannot meet the needs of children in care without enough foster carers and councils are investing in local and regional campaigns to encourage more people to foster, and to make those already fostering want to stay, we need government’s support with this,” said Nigel Minns, chair of the ADCS’s health, care and additional needs policy committee.
The Fostering Network, which counts more than 55,000 carers and 370 fostering services across the UK among its members, said “these annual losses will continue unless urgent action of a much greater scale is taken”.
Fostering system ‘under immense pressure’
Chief executive Sarah Thomas said this entailed “a UK-wide strategy to address both the urgent need to recruit and retain foster carers”, to tackle “the immense pressure the fostering system is under”.
She said there weren’t enough foster carers to support the rising number of children coming into care, with the charity estimating that England was short of 6,000 fostering families.
Despite the ongoing reduction in the number of fostering households, the number of filled mainstream places has remained broadly stable since 2021 at just under 45,000. There has been a 25% fall, from 16,080 to 12,100, in the number of vacant places between 2019 and 2023, with a reduction also in the number that were unavailable, from 15,840 to 14,960.
Shift in market towards IFAs
The data also showed the ongoing shift in the mainstream fostering sector from local authorities to independent fostering agencies (IFAs). IFAs accounted for 43% of mainstream households and 47% of filled places, as of 2023, up from 40% and 42%, respectively, in 2019.
For the ADCS, Minns raised concerns about the impact of this on council coffers.
“When a suitable foster family cannot be found in house, local authorities often use independent fostering agencies to find homes for children, however, the high cost of these placements places pressure on severely stretched council finances,” he added. “The government must address this.”
In its report on children’s social care last year, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) called for government support for councils to expand in-house foster care and reduce reliance on IFAs, on the basis that this would save money.
However, its assessment of relative costs was rejected by the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP), which represents IFAs, and the CMA proposal was not taken up by the DfE.
‘We fail to support foster carers at our peril’
Following the release of the Ofsted data, NAFP chief executive Harvey Gallagher defended IFAs’ value, particularly in supporting and retaining foster carers.
“Retention is perhaps even more important than recruitment,” he said. “The impact of more children with higher needs needing foster care means our foster carers need the highest levels of support that we can offer them.
“Yet, local authorities have experienced significant cuts in funding over the years. We fail to support our foster carers in the way they need it at our peril. IFAs in England continue to be around 93% good or outstanding in Ofsted judgements so it’s clear they continue to support their foster carers very well in these challenging times.”
Gallagher said that it appeared that recruitment had picked up recently among IFAs, though he added: “Recruitment is difficult. As a sector, perhaps we should be asking if we are close to exhausting the traditional pool of people who wish to be foster carers?”