Written evidence submitted by Ofsted

Education committee – children’s homes inquiry

Ofsted response


Ofsted inspects services providing education and skills for learners of all ages. We also inspect and regulate services that care for children and young people, including children’s homes which are inspected under the social care common inspection framework[1].

The experiences of kinship families are within the scope of inspections of local authority children’s services[2] .

On 4 April 2021, there were 2685 registered children’s homes. This figure includes 13 secure children’s homes and 69 children’s homes which are also registered as a residential special school.

Due to COVID-19 and at the request of the Secretary of State, we suspended all routine inspections of social care providers on 17 March 2020. We returned to routine SCCIF inspections on 12 April 2021.

Ofsted usually inspects every children’s home at least once annually. We carry out a second inspection to children’s homes where there are ongoing concerns. We always carry out a second inspection to secure children’s homes during the year.

Most homes (80%) were judged as good or outstanding at their most recent inspection[3], a similar figure to the previous three years. Where improvements are required, this has most commonly been in relation to weak leadership and management, and the safety and protection of children.

There are currently 69 residential schools also registered as a children’s home. 75% of these are judged good or outstanding.

Looked after children are much more likely to be identified as having a special educational need than the overall pupil population. Over half of children in care have special educational needs, compared to 15% of all pupils. Just under a third have a statement or EHC plan, compared to just 3% of all pupils. Children in care are more likely to have suffered early childhood trauma or neglect which has led to higher social and educational needs than the broader population. But we look at progress from their starting points. In our report ‘The education of children in children’s homes’ we identified that more than half of the children in the research sample who attended educational provision inspected by Ofsted were in special education.

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

Sufficiency in children’s social care remains a major concern. The current system is not providing places for all children where they are needed. The uneven spread of children’s homes across the country (Fig. 2) means that some of our most vulnerable children are often living far from home in unsuitable provision, risking further instability and difficulties. In 2019/20, we undertook 250 investigations into potentially unregistered homes.

Commissioning is often linked to individual children. Prices are high. Limited choice means that the commissioner is often not in a good position to negotiate the best care and support for children. We have already expressed our view to the independent care review that a national approach is required. No single local authority can resolve these serious sufficiency issues on their own; a cross-government approach is required.

There were 2,460 children’s homes as at 31 March 2020, a 7% increase (156 homes) from the previous year (2,304). These homes were registered for 12,175 places, a 1% increase from 12,035 as at 31 March 2019. This is not sufficient to keep pace with growing demand.

This reflects a general trend of reducing size of children’s homes. In 2019/20, the average number of places in a new children’s home was 3.4, while the average for a closing home was 5.1. The mean average size for children’s homes is 5.0 places (down from 5.2 the previous year, while the modal median sizes are both 4 places.

Children’s homes are very staff-intensive, it is not uncommon for a typical 4-5 place home having a staff of anywhere from 12 to 20 full time staff. Staffing ratios vary considerably according to individual children’s needs and the group living arrangements, for example some children need up to three members of staff at any given time. For some children there is a need for higher staffing ratios due to the risk they pose to themselves or to others. Homes also sometimes have to keep beds vacant in order to meet individual children’s needs.

In addition, laudable policies to ensure fewer children are accommodated in a justice secure or mental health facility have led to an increase in the children with greatest needs looked after in children’s homes.

Fig. 2: Distribution of children’s homes by region 



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

Despite the generally positive inspection outcomes for children’s homes, research suggests that children in residential care fare significantly worse educationally than their peers, and are likely to have been affected significantly by previous instability and adverse life experiences.[4]

The government publishes information about educational outcomes for looked after children[5][6], and Ofsted has also recently published a report, ‘The education of children living in childrens homes"’[7].

In summary:

Attainment of looked after children is much lower than average, in part (but only in part) because of the very different profile of educational needs of looked after children. Well under 10% of looked after children achieve grade 5 in either maths or English GCSE. In terms of progress, looked after children in primary schools (who are relatively few, as far more children come into care in their teens) make fairly good progress, whereas looked after children of secondary age make much less.

During SCCIF inspections of children’s homes, we look at how well each home helps children to progress in their education. This evaluation is an important part of the evidence that leads to the home’s overall judgement. However we do not routinely collect data on children’s attainment in these inspections.

It is difficult to attribute responsibility for children’s low educational attainment to an individual children’s home. Children do not become looked after in a children’s home until they are, on average, 13.3 years old and they only stay at a children’s home for an average of 1.4 years. We recognise that even slight progress in a particular aspect of their lives may represent a significant improvement for some children. Their experiences of trauma, abuse or neglect means that progress is not always straightforward. We take account of their starting points, their individual circumstances, and the challenges that children are likely to have faced in their lives.

Where we find during an inspection that a regulation has been breached, requirements are imposed. Only 2.7% of the requirements made in 2019/20 (before we paused routine inspection) related to the education standard (standard 8) of the children’s homes regulations[9], a low rate that is consistent with previous years.

We expect local authorities to aim for children in their care to attend good or outstanding schools, while taking into account all the other factors that are also important for children, such as keeping in touch with family and friends and educational continuity. Our analysis found that children in children’s homes were slightly less likely to attend good or outstanding educational provision than their peers; for children in SEND provision, children in residential care are between 3% and 5% less likely to be attending good or outstanding schools than their peers.

We know that this access to the school of the local authority’s choice, as the child’s corporate parent, is not always straightforward. For example, a children’s home may be located in an area with few good or outstanding schools. Many looked after children, however, experience difficulties in gaining admission to the school of choice for less clear reasons. Mid-year admissions are particularly problematic. The school admissions code includes an expectation that applications for looked after children should be given the highest priority. A breach of the admissions code is a matter for the schools adjudicator, but this process can be too slow for a child who is in urgent need of a care placement, or has already experienced too much instability in their education. Corporate parents are often not in a position to wait for an appeal to be heard and resolved and will need to turn to other education options.

We also look at these issues on our school inspections, as set out in our school inspection handbook[10]. In evaluating a school’s curriculum, inspectors always look at the evidence of its impact on the most disadvantaged pupils. Similarly, inspectors always consider the experiences of these pupils when making a behaviour and attitudes judgment. This category includes pupils with SEND, looked after children, children who left care through adoption or another formal route and children receiving statutory local authority support from a social worker. Inspectors evaluate the experience of a small sample of these pupils and consider how the school is working with external agencies. Where disadvantaged pupils’ progress is consistently well below other pupils nationally and shows little or no improvement, this is reflected in the inspection judgement.

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

Every year, we conduct surveys[11] of children living in care. In 2020 we received 1,665 responses from children living in children’s homes. Responses to these surveys help us to schedule and plan inspections. Findings in 2020 were generally positive from respondents:

Although these findings are generally heartening, and broadly reflect the overall inspection grade profile for children’s homes, they also demonstrate that there are a considerable number of children in residential care who do not feel safe or well cared for.

There are 416 (18%) children’s homes that require improvement to be good and 40 (1.7%) that are inadequate. During the pandemic, we identified serious and widespread concerns at 106 homes (12% of assurance visits). Common shortfalls in such homes included:

There has been a significant rise in the number of requirements we have made in relation to leadership and management. For example, requirements have been made to ensure that managers and staff regularly review the quality of one-to-one work with children and the progress children make because of these interventions. Requirements have also been made in relation to managers using feedback from children and young people to improve their care.


Conversely, in strong children’s homes, we see strong experienced leadership and robust independent oversight. Nurturing and responsive relationships are evident between children and staff. Importantly, there is consistent commitment to supporting children to keep in touch with friends and family. Over the pandemic period, we saw many homes working creatively to keep children engaged in their learning when it wasn’t possible to attend school. Transitions back to education were being well managed, aided by good communication and collaboration with schools.


Leaving care


Several Staying Close pilots have been under way for several years and have enabled some young people to remain close by their previous home and receive continuing support from staff they know well. However, there is a marked difference between the offer of ongoing support for children leaving residential care and the support available to children preparing to leave foster care. The entitlement for fostered children to ‘stay put’ with their carers after the age of 18, if all parties agree, is enshrined in legislation. The Staying Close initiative, in contrast, remains underdeveloped and is not an option for most children in residential care.


The use and appropriateness of unregulated provision

Unregulated provision

It is important to make the distinction between unregulated and unregistered provision.

Unregulated provision (sometimes known as ‘other arrangements’) is allowed in law. It is generally used when children - usually aged 16 or over - need support to live more independently and do not need full-time care. We expect such cases to be rare and exceptional. Ofsted does not regulate supported provision, although we do look at the suitability of other arrangements during our inspections of local authority children’s services. It should be used as a step towards independence, and only ever when it is demonstrably in an individual child’s best interests.

Figure 1 shows that the use of unregulated provision has increased significantly over recent years. The number of 16-17 year-olds in care (mainly children’s homes and foster care) has increased by 12.7% since 2014, but the availability of places has not kept pace with demand, as the number of children– particularly older children – continues to rise. The use of unregulated provision has nearly doubled over the same period. Most of that increase has been in the use of semi-independent provision (for those transitioning out of care who need help to learn to live independently), which has nearly quadrupled.

Fig. 1: Number of 16-17 year olds in care in semi-independent, independent and all other placements

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Finding the right care, at the right time, in the right place, to meet the needs of the growing number of children in care and care leavers is becoming increasingly difficult for local authorities. It is particularly difficult to find suitable care in an emergency for children who have high, complex needs and may not be able to live safely with other children.

The accommodation is often required in an emergency, while the local authority develops a longer-term plan. It is unrealistic for registered providers to keep a ‘stock’ of empty registered children’s homes, that are ready to respond to unpredictable, urgent referrals. As a result, in certain circumstances, local authorities may resort to placing some children in unregulated provision.

Unregistered provision

The Care Standards Act 2000 defines a children’s home as an establishment that provides ‘care and accommodation’ ‘wholly or mainly’ for children. If a provider delivers ‘care’, and ‘accommodation’ they must register as a children’s home. However, ‘care’ is not defined in the Care Standards Act 2000, although we have produced guidance to help providers.

In the absence of a clear definition, some providers operate children’s homes without realising they are doing so. We have seen children being placed in ‘other arrangements’ in settings that we consider require registration.

The staff at an unregistered provider may not realise that they need to register with Ofsted. For example, a supported living provider may have extended what they provide, without recognising they have begun to provide care. It’s also quite common for short-term arrangements or crisis responses when a placement for a child needs to be found quickly. Conversely, some providers are aware that they are providing care and accommodation but are wilfully not registering.

The government has announced that from September 2021, local authorities will not be able to place children under the age of 16 in any home which is not registered with Ofsted. This is likely to increase the demand for suitable accommodation still further.

Some providers misinterpret the existing exemptions in the children’s homes regulations. For example, some providers are misusing the 28-day exemption intended for holidays and sports trips to accommodate children in a succession of short placements.

Revisiting the exemptions or explaining their purpose more clearly in care planning guidance would help the sector. More generally, the Care Standards Act 2000 is out of date. The legislation does not easily support creative solutions or allow new service models to develop.

Our investigations into unregistered care suggest that a small number of companies are purposely setting up short-term arrangements to avoid registering as children’s homes. Whatever their intentions, they are filling a gap in current provision. Without further investment in the sector, this gap will remain.

We have been proactive in visiting premises that are not registered but are providing care and accommodation to children – the definition of a children’s home. In these circumstances, the provider is acting unlawfully and we take action to make sure that homes register as required, or cease operating.

We will also contact the placing local authority to make sure that it has an appropriate plan for the child to move to more suitable provision and is actively encouraging the provider to register.

If unlawful activity continues, we have powers to prosecute. However, these powers are limited. For example, we cannot use them if the placement is court-directed. In addition, the role of the local authority in the offence adds a further layer of complexity. Ofsted, the judiciary and the wider sector have all spoken out over a number of years about the chronic sufficiency challenges.

We have asked the Department for Education to increase our powers in this area To include powers to issue enforcement notices to illegal unregistered providers, while retaining our powers to prosecute where this is needed.

Criminalisation of children in children’s homes

The effectiveness of working relationships between children’s homes staff and the police and how well children are protected from unnecessary involvement in the criminal justice system are important benchmarks of good practice in our inspections of children’s homes. Inspectors routinely collect information on staff requests for the police to attend homes, to inform lines of enquiry.

An analysis of this information and safeguarding notifications that we receive from children’s homes show that concerns for children’s safety led to the majority of police ‘call-outs’. Our inspection and research evidence shows that most homes manage children’s behaviour well. Generally, homes have forged productive relationships with the police that have helped children to avoid becoming involved in the youth justice system. Good practice is characterised by:

However, pockets of unacceptably weak practice are still evident. When we are concerned that police involvement is unnecessary and staff are struggling to effectively manage children’s behaviour, this can lead to an early inspection and will inform our judgements. In a small number of cases, we have taken more serious enforcement action.

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

Although we paused routine inspection in March 2020, we continued our regulatory work to help maintain social care provision for the most vulnerable children. This included:

In September 2020, we began to carry out ‘assurance visits’ to children’s homes, prioritised according to risk. We have since carried out 864 of these visits to children’s homes. In 106 visits (12%), we identified serious and widespread concerns for children’s care and safety which led to further action, such as additional monitoring or enforcement action, including (in a small number of cases) closure of a home.


Overall, however, these visits have shown us that most had been managing the challenges of the pandemic well. Most homes had put suitable measures in place to ensure that children were safe and they were responding well to safeguard children’s emotional well-being. Inspectors were generally confident that children were safe and well cared for. While schools were closed, staff worked hard to support children’s learning. They helped children to keep in touch with friends and families using digital technology, while facilitating face-to-face meetings wherever possible. Unsurprisingly, however, many children have felt an increasing anxiety and frustration during the restrictions.


In the 12 months from April 2020 to April 2021, the overall number of children’s homes has risen by almost 250 to 2,706 (as at March 2021), the highest number since 2012. 349 new children’s homes registered, while 101 have closed. ​ Of these 176 new children’s homes, 23 were registered on the site of a previously closed children’s home and are classed as re-registrations.​ We fast-tracked a small number of registrations where provision was urgently needed. ​ In the same period in 2019, only 136 new homes were registered.


Data from our visits to local authority children’s services between March and September 2020 showed a further increase in the number of children in care, continuing the trend of an increasing care population over several years. There were increases in 15 of the 22 local authorities that we visited, and a 5% rise overall.


The government had made clear that it expected local authorities to avoid unnecessary moves for children during the pandemic and this has led to fewer children than usual leaving residential care, contributing to the overall increase in the number of children in care. However, this has also had the effect of reducing the usual number of available places. As restrictions are lifted, the number of children leaving care is likely to increase, freeing up some capacity in children’s homes.


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

Kinship care support

Kinship care provides a successful route to permanence for many thousands of children. However, many kinship families feel unsupported and left to cope on their own, even though children in kinship care share many characteristics, experiences and needs with other children in care, who are entitled to greater support from local authorities and other agencies.

Due to the pandemic and the pause in routine inspection, we have very little recent inspection evidence that evaluates the extent of the support provided kinship families.

Children’s home support for relationships with birth families

The extent to which children’s homes help children to maintain positive relationships with important people in their lives is an important component of our inspections. During the pandemic, we have found that most homes have been creative, with good use of digital technology when face-to-face visits were not possible, while enabling visits when it was safe to do so and helping children to make the most of their time with their families. However, a small number of homes took an overly restrictive, cautious and inflexible approach that did not take enough account of changing restrictions, or the individual needs and circumstances of children and families.

April 2021





[3] Children’s Social Care data in England 2020

[4] The educational progress of looked after children | Nuffield Foundation



[7] The education of children living in children's homes - GOV.UK (


[8] DfE data does not tell us where these children are living so we are unable to disaggregate for children living in children’s homes

[9] Children’s homes regulations, including quality standards: guide - GOV.UK (

[10] schools inspection handbook


[12] Restorative practice is a term used to describe behaviours, interactions and approaches which help to build and maintain positive, healthy relationships, resolve difficulties and repair harm where there has been conflict.