Written evidence submitted by Barnardo’s


Written Submission to the Education Select Committee inquiry into Children’s homes


May 2021  

Nicola Smith, Senior Policy Adviser


About Barnardo’s  

Barnardo’s is the UK’s largest children’s charity. In 2019-20 we supported 358,800 children, young people, parents and carers, through more than 800 services and partnerships. Barnardo’s has a long-standing history of providing services to children and young people in the care system. We provide edge of care support to families; we are the largest voluntary provider of adoption and fostering services; and we provide support to care leavers.  We also run 17 residential services across the UK. These cater for children with a variety of different needs, including emotional and behavioural difficulties, special educational needs and autism, and life limiting conditions. This response draws on our experience of providing this work in the current market. We do not seek to provide an answer to all the questions raised by the Committee but rather to focus our response on those which are of most relevant to our experience of frontline practice.






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

Evidence continues to show that on average children in care – regardless of placement type- tend to achieve lower educational outcomes than their peers.[1] These differences are even more pronounced for children in residential care. A study in 2013 found that those living in residential care at the age of 16 on average scored over six grades lower than those who were in kinship or foster care.[2] The reasons behind this are complex and the impact of a child’s past abuse and trauma has on their ability to learn cannot be disentangled easily from the impact of their care placement. Children placed in residential care often have the most complex needs, they are more likely to have entered care later and more likely to have special educational needs.[3]

At Barnardo’s many of the young people we support in residential care have already missed substantial portions of education or moved schools frequently before they come to us. In addition, currently, an estimated three quarters of children raised in local authority residential homes meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis.[4] Young people who have suffered significant past trauma and abuse in their lives need time to settle and adapt to a new placement and surroundings before we can ever expect them to learn successfully. Barnardo’s therefore believes that the key to successfully improving educational outcomes for this group is to consider how schools, providers and other important support services can work together to deliver effective support.

The education system has made important steps to better support children in care in recent years, with the introduction of virtual school heads and the Pupil Premium Plus, which provides schools with specific funding to support this groupHowever, Barnardo’s believes more needs to be done, particularly to support care experienced children with the highest level of support needs. Services report that while virtual school heads can be an important source of support, good practice does not always filter down to day-to-day practice in the classroom. Class teachers do not always have a developed understanding of the impact past trauma can have on learning. The system is further hampered by virtual school heads being increasingly overstretched given the significant increase of children in the care system in recent years, while other wrap around support services, including mental health, are not always available in school or more widely.


Barnardo’s believes that the key to achieving better educational outcomes is the development of an education system that is more responsive to children who have suffered past trauma. This should include better training for all teachers to understand how to work in a trauma informed way. We also need a more integrated approach to providing additional support services to children which need them. Barnardo’s believes that the Government should seek to build on the success of the virtual school head with the introduction of similar role in local authorities of a virtual mental health lead. This role would work close with the virtual school heads to ensure that looked after children in a local authority are able to access the support they need for their emotional wellbeing in way which supports their education.


Ultimately children in care would be provided with better support for their mental health in schools if mental health provision in schools was improved for everyone.  We strongly support the principles in the ‘Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision’ Green Paper introduced mental health teams in schools. However, we firmly believe that the roll out of this initiative needs to be quicker – especially given the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health.

We are pleased to be involved in some of the Mental Health Support Team trailblazers – including in Swindon, Cumbria, and the Isle of Wight. We appreciate that training staff takes time and the recent additional investment of £79m is welcome. However, we would urge the Committee to consider recommending to Government that it thinks ‘outside the box’ – perhaps working differently with partners, to deliver this commitment more quickly. Even if things go to plan, the current programme will only benefit a maximum of a third of schools by 2023.  A quicker roll out will benefit all children, including those in the care system.

The Committee should recommend:



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

As highlighted above, children in residential care often have significant support needs. They have often suffered significant trauma earlier in their lives and need support, love and care to thrive. Barnardo’s own experience of providing residential care is that it is important to work to ensure that residential placements are nurturing and supportive and avoid an institutional feel. Providing appropriate support needs to start by ensuring we have the right staff who can empathise and connect with the children and young people in their care. As one young person cared for in a Barnardo’s residential home explained:


I love getting time to relax and chill out and watch movies with staff and other young people. I like to have the chance to get out of my wheelchair for a stretch and listen to music. I enjoy a laugh and a joke and get lots of this type of interaction during my time here”. 


It is also important to consider how to create good quality integrated support services for children in residential care. We also need a whole system approach to health and well-being which creates a long-term network for the child. The aim should be to set up multi-skilled social care and health partnerships to meet children’s needs within a residential care setting, working effectively with health professionals, from occupational therapists to nurses to speech and language therapists. Residential care should also be commissioned in a way which ensures there are established pathways into Child Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). Our recommendation to have a mental health lead in every local authority should be a vehicle to help provide this more integrated way of working. The difference effective support can make to a young person is demonstrated by Wyhed’s story, a young man who was looked after in one of Barnardo’s residential care homes.


Providing effective support is a particular problem in relation to transition. Despite efforts to improve leaving care support over the years, many young people tell us that they feel they face a “cliff edge” at 18, when they are expected to move out of care and support significantly reduces. Young people in foster care can avoid the cliff edge through the Staying Put” scheme which allows them to stay with their foster cares, if all parties agree this to be suitable arrangement, up to the age of 21. Historically, however, there has been no equivalent for Staying Put for children leaving residential care. The Government has begun to bridge this gap through the introduction of the Staying Close scheme, which has been piloted in several areas. This scheme aims to ensure that young people leaving residential care continue to receive practical and emotional support from their former home. The initial evaluation of one of these projects showed very positive results:


Independent living skills had improved after 6 months and young people showed increased happiness with life over time, had better stability in their accommodation […] and there was increased participation in activities, whether education, employment or getting involved with activities.[5]


The Government has promised a national rollout of “Staying Close”, although no details have been provided as to when and how this would take place. We have recommended that the Government rolls out a national Staying Close scheme and that it should be placed on a statutory footing similar to that provided for Staying Put.


The Committee should recommend:


The use and appropriateness of unregulated provision

There are currently over 6,000 children under the age of 18, living in unregulated semi-independent accommodation,[6] a significant increase in recent years. Barnardo’s believes that high-quality semi-independent accommodation can be the right choice for some older children in the care system, particularly those aged over 16 who wish to move on from care yet need more support than they would get living independently.

We are concerned that semi-independent accommodation is currently being used in some circumstances when a child is not emotionally and practically ready to start towards a journey of independent living, but due to a limited number of appropriate places in the regulated sector there are no other options. Semi-independent accommodation is not a substitute for children who need care, and we urge the Committee to consider how to improve and increase the supply of appropriate care placements, issues around sufficiency in the children’s home sector are discussed later in this response.

We are also concerned about the quality of provision in the semi-independent sector. While Barnardo’s has developed high-quality provision in this area over the years with young people living in accommodation that provides 24 hours on-site support, we are concerned of reports of some very poor-quality provision in the sector. Our forthcoming report “No place like home” takes a detailed look at the experience of care leavers living in a range of different accommodation provision, including those placed in semi-independent accommodation. This includes the testimony of a number of young people placed in hostels with very little support, and sometimes with older residents who displayed anti-social behaviour, including abuse of drugs and alcohol, making young people feel unsafe. The Government has recently committed to introducing common standards in this sector alongside a system of inspection - we very much support this approach.

To improve standards in semi-independent accommodation, the Committee should recommend:

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

There have been a number of problems with sufficiency within the residential care sector in recent years. OFSTED’s main findings in its review of the care system in 2020 highlighted key concerns:

In addition, there is also a lack of an even geographical spread in the distribution of children typically needing residential care, in particular older entrants into care.  Of the children entering care aged 16 or 17 in the year ending 31 March 2020, 29% were in London and only 3% in the Northeast. We believe that a lack of good quality residential care provision is in part the result of a narrative that residential care should only be used as a last resort and when other forms of care placement have failed. While Barnardo’s agrees that a family placement is the right choice of most children, it is also important to recognise that we need a range of different care placements to meet the diverse range of needs of children in care. Our experience tells us that particularly older children, or those with more complex support needs, prefer the option of a residential placement, particularly when the placement that is provided comes with a high level of love and support. As one child looked after in Barnardo’s residential care explained:

“I was in foster care and I prefer residential care because the different people and structure is different, but I still feel loved by the staff.

We believe that is important to reverse the negative narrative around residential care and start to recognise that, when managed well, it can be a legitimate placement option for some children. This would help improve the status of the residential care workforce, who are often undervalued and drive more investment and innovation in the sector. 

The Committee should recommend:

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

Barnardo’s is still assessing the overall impact of the pandemic on the care system.  Our expectation is that the system is likely to see further demands because of an increase in families struggling with issues such as poverty, unemployment and poor mental health, which we know often drive referrals into the care system. We are concerned that extensive school closures during the last year may also have hidden several child protection issues which are only now coming to light.  

To date we have seen some increase in demand for care placements during the pandemic.  We saw a 57% rise in the number of children referred to Barnardo’s fostering services in England between April to December 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.  In relation to residential care, we also became aware of a severe shortage of available placements in London, where we established a new home during the pandemic to provide a 6-bed provision for 11–18-year-olds with mild learning disability, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Asperger’s. Anecdotally we believe that a lack of face-to-face support services, combined with the additional pressure of parenting vulnerable children in the context of lockdown restrictions, has placed significant pressure on many placements. This will enviably lead to some level of placement breakdown and increase the need for emergency alternatives.

The Committee should recommend:

May 2021












[5] The Break, Staying Close evaluation report (