This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Children's Minister talks about the government's plans to improve conditions for children in care.
Thanks Janet - it’s a pleasure to be invited along today to the second Annual Leaving Care Conference as a guest of the Care Matters Partnership and the Care Leavers Association. I want to take a moment to thank you all for the great work the sector has been doing to improve the lives and outcomes of care leavers and children in care. I spent Tuesday of this week in Haringey with social workers, committed and hardworking, and it only reinforced that while the papers only focus on the negative, we need to start seeing social workers as part of the solution. The vast majority of what they do is invaluable to the lives of our young people in care.
In coming along this morning, I wanted to start by paying my thanks, in person, to both you and your teams for the incredible amount of work that’s been done over the last few years. It’s sometimes easy to forget, particularly in the midst of this or that media maelstrom, that almost every day there is a child leaving care in this country who has been handed a promising future by the professionals supporting them.
And it is equally easy to forget that many of those same professionals are operating under the most intense of pressures. With a system that has been creaking and straining under the weight of Government targets, red tape, bureaucracy, rules and regulations for far too long now. And a caseload of work that - as we all know - often throws them into incredibly pressured situations.
Just this month, in fact, I shadowed social workers up in Stockport for the week. I was, needless to say, pretty knackered by the end of that week. And yet social workers are tirelessly doing that job seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. I witnessed some truly horrific conditions in which the Stockport frontline workers needed to operate, and it was a firm reminder of the resilience and energy which would be required to carry out the role day in and day out. The whole experience was a real eye opener for me I have to say.
System change can work where excessive spending has failed
So, what I didn’t want to do this morning was stand up and pretend that there is some quick fix, or that supporting children in care and care leavers is in any way a straightforward issue for us to deal with. It quite clearly isn’t - particularly given the fact that many of you have been asked to tighten the purse strings for more than a few years now, with more financial challenges ahead.
But at the same time, we have reached the point where we simply have to become more ambitious, more smart about the kind of support we offer our care leavers, and think rather more imaginatively about how we do it. I’m not convinced, for instance, that it is as simple as saying if you spend x, you achieve y. That sort of governance has been tried and tested in the past, and it has proved to have a pretty limited impact on many of the toughest social problems we face today. Outcomes for care leavers are still woefully poor compared to their peers, with many being vulnerable to alcohol and drug abuse, becoming teenage parents, or becoming part of the long-term unemployed.
This is not, therefore, a routine question of economics or accountancy. It is, I think, far more about the mechanics. It’s about the way we go about our business and about the scale of ambition. And there are, quite simply, some very urgent systemic changes that need to be made to ensure that children in care have access to a good education, to good health care, good support and good advice. And the economic mess that we’ve all inherited has - in many ways - simply underlined the importance of making those changes now.
Reducing red tape
So, in the brief time I have - I’d like to run through the three priority areas as I see them. Beginning, if I can, with how we make it easier for councils and staff to support children in care and care leavers. And, in particular, how we reduce the morass of red tape that has engulfed councils over the years.
During my time as both a minister and shadow minister, this has been the number one gripe of all the staff I have talked to, with constant complaints about the amount of time social workers, in particular, spend filling out forms, staring at computer screens, ticking boxes. This cannot be right. Not only does it place more pressure on caseloads, but it actually denies staff the chance to do the job they’ve been trained for. They need to have the time and the reserves to spend much more time at the sharp end, eye-balling vulnerable families. I can no more see the sense in a highly skilled social worker filling out excel spreadsheets, or a foster carer recording everything they do to support a child, than I could see the sense in asking a top barrister to stand by the photocopier all day. Or have a GP mopping the surgery floor.
So, if we want to make it easier for councils, we have to make it easier for their staff as well, and reduce the bureaucracy, the red tape and the regulation - and do it as soon as possible. Which is one of the reasons why, as you know, we have asked Professor Eileen Munro to look at how we might be able to free up the profession. Her team is due to report back with their findings in the spring. I have given Professor Munro one destination - to end up in a place where we are able to free up social workers’ time to spend much more time on the front line. This is not a review driven by a knee-jerk reaction to a horrendous incident, such as we had with Baby Peter. But rather, this is a chance for us to step back and take stock of where the profession of social work and the job of child protection has ended up after years of reactive policy and ever-growing bureaucracy. This review will see Professor Munro rip-up the regulations with a hope of transforming the working lives of social workers, allowing them to focus on the job in hand - namely protecting vulnerable children.
In addition of course, we’ve been stripping away and streamlining the regulations and guidance that surrounds looked-after children. The care leavers part of this is being published today, and thanks to your support and input it is far better - and substantially shorter; seven thousand words shorter in fact. It also allows much more flexibility for frontline staff to use their judgement to make decisions based on young people’s needs. And has cut bureaucracy so you have more time to work directly with children.
Now, those new regulations come into force next April, and bring together the key responsibilities to give children in care the right support as quickly as possible. And we are, I must stress, particularly keen to see that local areas reduce the number of ‘out of authority’ placements they make, and that they meet their new sufficiency duty to commission local placements. In particular, we have to stop the significant flows of children from many inner city authorities to seaside towns like Thanet in Kent or Worthing
Better quality placements
The second point I wanted to look at relates to quality. The temptation when people want to save a fast buck is to think short term. But children in care desperately need us to make the economic case for instituting quality, evidence-based practice in order to save money down the line. It is, in effect, nothing more complicated than the old ‘stitch in time saves nine’ principle that I suspect nearly every grandparent has passed on to the grandchild sitting on their knee at some point or another.
So - we must start to see better commissioning of placements right across the board. There are too many emergency placements and contracts with providers who offer a less than adequate service for children in care. In particular, too many foster carers receive little ongoing support. With the inevitable consequence that the resulting placement will breakdown, and cost the council far more than it would have done to seek a high quality one from the start.
And for those of you who haven’t yet had the chance of reading it, I would certainly recommend looking at the Demos report that was released earlier this year - with its case study highlighting the hypothetical journeys of child A and child B, and its very persuasive research, which showed that significant savings can be made by improving placement stability.
In a similar vein, it is vital that we drive up quality by using properly designed programmes of intensive support, like the Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, which has been proven to help children with the most complex needs to turn the corner. The annual MTFC report, which was published today, showed - again - that there are substantial savings to be made on individual children’s placements.
And these are hugely important tools for those of you who have to make the case for funding in areas with lots of children in care. Whilst for those authorities with fewer children who require such intensive support, the challenge is how they can work with their neighbours to introduce and maintain quality - evidence-based approaches.
Because it is only through achieving this, that we can begin to improve placements right across the board, with the MTFC having huge potential, in particular, to upskill foster carers, who often play such a critical role in helping children in care to achieve their potential. Which is one of the reasons why we are also developing a Foster Charter, which will contain a clear statement of the vital role that foster carers play, and the contribution they make. It will set out specifically:
- what foster carers should expect from local authorities
- what local authorities should expect of foster carers, and
- what foster children should expect of both.
It will be a compact of good practice.
In addition, I have set up two advisory groups with young people, both in the care system and those leaving care. The first meeting with the care leavers group, as you know, was filmed, and is now up on the Children & Young People Now website. I will be meeting with that group on a quarterly basis, with the next meeting in December. I am also meeting quarterly with groups of young foster children, adoptive children, and those in the care system, with the Children’s Rights Director, Roger Morgan. These opportunities are invaluable, offering me the opportunity to have insightful conversations with really very astute young people directly affected by issues on the ground.
The third, and final point I wanted to raise today is the simple question of fairness. The fact is, there was more than an element of truth in the comments made by Conner, the teenager in the BBC’s recent Panorama investigation on social work in Coventry, when he described children in the care system as living like ‘second class people’.
How else do we explain the fact that some 21 per cent of care leavers were 16 when they left home, while 24 is the average age for the rest of our children to leave the family home? And how else do you explain the fact that just 15 per cent of looked-after children are achieving five or more good GCSEs - as compared to some 70 per cent of children nationwide? And this gap has widened.
This is why it is crucial that a child’s education is properly considered when deciding on placements, and in particular that moves are not made during crucial periods such as preparing for GCSEs. And it is why we will also be introducing the Pupil Premium, which will help ensure that children in care are given every chance to succeed at school.
Whilst for care leavers specifically, it means taking a far more flexible approach than we have done in the past. There are not many parents nowadays who usher their children out of the door when they hit 18 - least of all 16. And we have to be sensitive to the fact that different children grow and develop at very different speeds.
Furthermore, I would argue that it is self-evidently unfair that the area you live in determines how likely you are to leave care and find a placement in education, employment or training. With local authorities varying in performance from 34 per cent of care leavers in the system at the worst performer, to nearly 88 per cent at the best.
Although even in that discrepancy, there is hope for those of us with rose-tinted spectacles, because we know that learning from best practice can bring all LAs up to a higher standard. And I’m delighted that the FromCare2Work programme is now going from strength-to-strength - with more than 3500 opportunities now in place or planned. I was also very interested to hear more regarding our Staying-Put Pilots, which produced an interim report in September. I believe it is so important that our children in the care system have that same safety net enjoyed by other young people - whose average age of leaving home now is 24, and rising. While many teenagers in the care system may feel they are ready to face the world at 16, and some may well be ready, it’s possible that things could fall apart when they are 17/18. Their housing could fall through, they could lose their job. Essentially there needs to be much more flexibility in the system to ensure care leavers have the support to fall back on should they need it.
So, these are the three main areas that we know can help us ensure that care leavers get a better deal in the future. Making it easier for councils to support, focusing on quality over making a fast buck, and by institutionalising fairness in the way we operate. All mechanical changes - rather than economic ones.
To end, I know there has been a lot of talk following the Spending Review about us ‘all being in this together’ - and that remains the case. But there are some very honourable exceptions to that rule - and in particular children in care and care leavers. As the collective corporate parents of these children, it is our responsibility to ensure they get the start in life they deserve. They cannot, and should not, be expected to pay the price for mistakes they have played no part in causing. They deserve a second chance at a stable family life after a traumatic experience.
Not only would that be grotesquely unfair - it would also be a false economy of epic proportions. So, as you make the case for the children in care in your area, we will support you in every way we can, wherever we can, through making it easier to provide services, by giving you far greater autonomy over budgets and by ensuring fairness is the cornerstone of all policy we institute.
Thank you so much for your time today.