Written evidence submitted by The Association of Directors of Children's Services


23 April 2021


ADCS submission to the Education Committee inquiry on children’s homes


  1. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services Ltd. (ADCS) is the national leadership organisation in England for directors of children’s services (DCSs) appointed under the provisions of the Children Act (2004).  The DCS acts as a single point of professional leadership and accountability for services for children and young people in a local area, including children’s social care and education.  ADCS welcomes the opportunity to provide written evidence to the Education Committee inquiry on children’s homes.


Educational outcomes for children and young people in children’s homes, including attainment and progression to education, employment and training destinations


  1. Research published by the Nuffield Foundation in 2020 exploring the educational attainment and progress of children in need and children in care found that young people living in residential care at age 16 scored over six grades less at GCSE than those living with foster carers.  However, in a wide ranging review of residential care published in 2016, when considering outcomes Sir Martin Narey concluded that it is very difficult to link a period in a children’s home to educational or other outcomes when most children spend only brief periods in them.  He also found evidence to suggest that children who spend a longer time in residential provision may have better outcomes than those who have only spent a short time in such provision.  This position is echoed in research published by the Rees Centre in 2015, exploring the educational progress of children in care.  This found that young people who had been in longer-term care did better in their GCSE exams than children in need, and better than those who had only been in short-term care, which suggests that care is a protective factor. 


  1. In 2021, Ofsted published research on the education of children in children’s homes.  Using a sample of 2,600 children, this found that the majority (83%) attended educational provision eligible for Ofsted inspection and more than half (57%) attended a special school.  The research suggests that children in children’s homes are 20 times more likely to be educated in specialist settings than all children nationally.  When considering all children living in children’s homes and attending state-funded education nationally, 47% had education, health and care plans (EHCP) and a further 27% were receiving SEN support.  For all children nationally, the proportions were 3% and 12% respectively.


  1. There has been a steady growth in the number of children’s homes with a linked education offer.  While this kind of provision can be useful in engaging children in learning after a time out of formal education, ADCS members have raised concerns about quality and the potentially isolating impact of children being educated where they live for lengthy periods of time and not experiencing education with their peers from the wider community.  The Ofsted research looked at those children whose home and school were owned by the same ‘ownership group’.  From the sample of 2,600 children, Ofsted looked at children’s home ownership groups with more than 10 children also attending their schools. Around 17% of the children (445) attended schools run by 13 ownership groups. The top 4 ownership groups also featured in the top 10 largest children’s home providers as at 31 March 2019.  This is interesting in the context of the recent entry of private equity into the provision of residential care, contracting ownership base and the impact of provider failure.


  1. In 2017, the National Consortium for Examination Results launched the Children Looked After Analysis Service which provides analysis of educational performance, progress and contextual factors of children whilst in care.  The service is designed to support local authorities (LAs) to improve educational outcomes for vulnerable children and all 151 top tier LAs have access to the available data.


The quality of, and access to, support for children and young people in children’s homes, including support for those with special education needs, and the support available at transition points


  1. Many adolescents entering care have complex, over-lapping health and social care needs requiring a multi-disciplinary support response tailored to needs.  Models of good care are crucial and should not just be focused on the support provided day to day within the home.  The wrap around support available for children and young people is also key, along with the role of partners in prioritising the needs of children in care, for example, CAMHS.


  1. More could be done to explore how we can ensure that providers are offering quality services and the role of the Regulator in relation to this, especially where placements are deemed to be specialist.  ADCS has previously called for a review of specialist residential provision for children with complex mental health needs and the development of clear criteria for providers of specialist therapeutic services to evidence the therapeutic nature of their offer.


  1. Implementation of the 2014 SEND reforms has resulted in a number of unintended consequences; a drift away from inclusion in mainstream education, shunting of costs around the system, an over emphasis on securing an EHCP in order to access support, an increased parental expectation that education will continue until 25, and an over reliance on independent specialist provision.  Demand for funding via the high needs block is unsustainable and the system needs to reset to ensure the needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable children with additional needs are met in mainstream settings where appropriate and as close to home as possible.  ADCS members await the publication of the findings from the SEND Review.  We hope the review will set out a programme of reform to address the challenges in the system and better meet the needs of all children and young people with special educational needs, including those in care. 


The use and appropriateness of unregulated provision


  1. For some young people, a placement in an unregulated setting is a placement of choice, it is the best option to meet their needs and/ or is part of a plan to support a move towards independent living.  However, for other young people, this is a placement of last resort as no other placement in registered provision can be found or indeed secured.  ADCS is aware of examples where placement officers have contacted in excess of 200 registered providers and have still been unable to secure a placement for a single child.  Demand for registered places is outstripping supply and registered children’s homes are increasingly reluctant to accept children with highly complex needs, particularly at short notice or in a crisis situation, for fear of jeopardising their Ofsted rating.  This is particularly true for the cohort of young people on the edge of hospitalisation, criminalisation or a welfare secure placement who are not well served by existing frameworks or provision.  The inspection framework must recognise the increasing level of risk which LAs are managing in the community, and enable providers to replicate this in their practice working directly with young people. 


  1. ADCS members believe a change in the regulatory framework to make it more flexible to respond to children’s needs in essential. Registering providers to provide services rather than registering physical settings, similar to the approach taken in fostering and adoption, could provide some of the flexibility needed to allow LAs to tailor the care and support around the individual needs of children and young people, particularly those with such complex needs. 


  1. ADCS has a clear position in relation to unregulated provision and what is needed within the system to ensure that the right placement is available at the right time with the right support:


Criminalisation of children in children’s homes


  1. ADCS members continue to be concerned about the unnecessary criminalisation of a small number of children in care for minor or trivial matters most families would resolve themselves without the need to involve the policeLord Laming’s independent review, ‘In Care and Out of Trouble’ found that, although 94% of children in care in England and Wales do not get into trouble with the law, they are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system and in custody.  Research conducted by the Howard League in 2017 found similar trends; children living in children’s homes were being criminalised at a much greater rate than other children, including those in foster care.  It also found that young people aged 16 and 17 living in children’s homes were 15 times more likely to be criminalised compared to other children of a similar age.  


  1. ADCS has previously contributed to work led by the Department for Education, Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to develop a national protocol on reducing the unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children and care leavers, which was published in November 2018. The national protocol evolved out of local arrangements in several different partnerships and sub-regional areas with the aim of making good practice more commonplace across the country.  However, the national protocol alone is not enough to make a significant difference, real change relies on the relationships between children’s homes and their local police force.  There are complex issues involved in caring for vulnerable young people who are unable to live with their families, many may have experienced significant trauma, neglect, or bereavement.  Any behaviour must be understood in this wider context and responses must be suitably proportionate, restorative solutions are particularly relevant here.


  1. We know that contact with the youth justice system over time is damaging and actually increases the future likelihood of offending, so every effort should be made to keep children and young people out of it. Even if the police do attend a disturbance at a children’s home, they have the option to use Outcome 21, which provides that, where police consider further investigations leading to formal action against a named suspect is not in the public interest, the matter can be closed with no further action taken.


The sufficiency of places in children’s homes, and the regional location of homes


  1. As at 31 March 2020, there were 80,080 children in care in England, this represents an increase of 24.5% over the last decade.  Placement sufficiency has long been an issue for LAs and ADCS has been vocal in calling for more co-ordinated national action to help deliver increased capacity within the system, to meet the changing needs of children and young people, crucially at a cost that is affordable to LAs.  The reviews of both residential care (2016) and fostering (2018) highlighted placement sufficiency as key issues.  The country does not have enough foster carers and while, as at 31 March 2020, there were 2,460 children’s homes in England, totalling 12,175 places, these are not always in the right geographical location and are not accessible to children with the most complex needs. 


  1. Typically, the supply of homes hasn’t developed in response to need but rather providers have taken advantage of low cost accommodation, often in areas with pre-existing challenges which are exactly the wrong areas to place vulnerable children and young people.  The challenges this poses are twofold.  LAs with an oversupply of residential services, typically those with low cost property, will become the ‘host’ authority for children placed within the area by other LAs.  This can place additional pressure on local services, particularly in areas where demand for services is already high.  In contrast, those with an undersupply will be reliant on costly out of area placements.  This interdependency can present a challenge when LAs are trying to influence and manage the provision that is available in their area. 


  1. A number of LAs are now actively considering re-entering the residential care market.  It would be helpful to have a better understanding of the barriers to investment by LAs working collaboratively or with partners to create local provision and the Local Government Association has recently completed research exploring this issue.


The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the extent to which this might increase the demand for places in children’s homes


  1. Following the first national lockdown, ADCS published a paper exploring the impact of Covid-19 on children, young people and their families.  The circumstances of some children and families have significantly deteriorated as a result of the long-lasting impact of Covid-19 and we anticipate this leading to an exponential growth in need and demand for which children’s services require significant investment.  While the number of children entering care is lower when compared to previous years, the number of children in care is increasing due to backlogs in the courts and prioritisation of cases being heard


  1. ADCS members report a significant cohort of newly vulnerable families who have been referred to children’s social care for the first time due to the impact of environmental factors linked to the pandemic and lockdown, such as domestic abuse, neglect and financial hardship as a result of job losses.  Members also report an increasing level of complexity amongst many of those families who are already working with children’s services.  As a result of the national lockdowns, many have had reduced contact with early years, education and health professionals and may have been struggling with reduced support for a prolonged period of time resulting in an escalation of need.


The support available for kinship carers, and for children in homes to maintain relationships with their birth families


  1. Kinship care, if adequately supported, has a strong track record in providing stability, reinforcing key aspects of a child’s identity, and delivering positive outcomes into adulthood.  The Public Law Working Group has recently published best practice guidance on special guardianship orders in an attempt to enable fairer and speedier decisions.  The support available to special guardians, both pre and post order is also the subject of much debate at present.  How we ensure that, where appropriate, children can remain successfully within their own families in the least intrusive way possible and with the right kind of support is a key consideration.  However, many kinship care arrangements are agreed on an informal basis with no involvement from the relevant local authority. 


  1. The much anticipated independent review of children’s social care was launched earlier this year.  Over recent years, adoption has received much policy attention and investment, whereas other forms of permanence, including long-term fostering, special guardianship and kinship care have not had a similar focus, even though these children generally have the same needs as those who are adopted from care.  It is hoped the outcome of the care review will broaden the national policy lens and bring into view the importance of all avenues to permanence. 


Private equity


  1. Although children’s services have long operated in a mixed economy with private, voluntary and community providers, the entry of private equity into the provision of residential care is a source of worry.  For some time, ADCS members have been concerned about how private equity is driving rapid changes in the ownership, financial models and service delivery in the sectorThe proportion of the market controlled by just a small number of providers, along with multi-million-pound mergers between providers who are diversifying across the sector and buying up smaller firms, increases the risk within the system.  The risks associated with the impact of provider failure are significant and only increase as ownership continues to contract. 


  1. The current regulatory framework dates from 2002 and is primarily focused on the performance of individual homes rather than the efficacy of the increasingly common large provider chains / organisations or the contribution they make to children’s outcomes.  There is also little focus on or scrutiny of the financial stability of parent companies.  There is no single record of who owns the services which deliver care for children available for LAs to refer to as corporate parents, nor is there a mechanism for recording or managing the risk of provider failure, as there is in adult social care.  


April 2021