Map of care provision needs urgent review as ‘anxiety and frustration’ grow over lack of capacity, especially in children’s homes, inspectorate’s social care lead warns.

National leadership and investment is needed to tackle the lack of capacity and workforce skills in services for children in care, Ofsted has warned in its annual report.

The inspectorate said there was “no central joined-up strategy or plan to meet children’s needs” in the residential sector that would address the long distances many were placed from home, inadequate staff skills in weaker homes and the use of unregulated and unregistered provision.

With the incoming government having pledged in its election manifesto to review the creaking care system, Ofsted said: “No single LA can fix this. What is needed is national oversight and strategic leadership – the system needs to work as a whole.”

It called for “collective consideration and action” and for investment both in local placement capacity and in workforce stability, including around improving the status of care workers and the qualifications available to them.

‘Commitment from government departments needed’

Speaking to Community Care after the report’s launch, Ofsted’s national director for social care, Yvette Stanley, said: “We need commitment from all the big government departments, and for a wide range of stakeholders to contribute – including care-experienced young people and adults, who feel they have a lot to say about how to make the system better, but not necessarily the routes to do so.”

Last week the acting children’s minister, Michelle Donelan, attracted criticism from across the children’s services sector after writing to council directors urging them to prioritise adoption, seemingly above other permanence options for children.

Stanley did not address Donelan’s comments directly but said that from Ofsted’s perspective it was important the “continuum” of care options – rehabilitating children home, kinship care, long-term fostering, adoption and residential care – be examined holistically by any review.

“I would hope [it] looked at making the best decisions for children, and the solutions to achieve best outcomes for children as a result, rather than focusing on one or two elements,” Stanley said.

Capacity issues

With the number of children in care having risen 4% to more than 78,000 by March 2019 since the previous year, Ofsted welcomed a rise in the number of fostering homes in 2018-19, reversing a year-on-year decline from 2015-16 to 2017-18.

The number of places also rose, by 1%, to 88,370, of which 54,870 (63%) were filled, up 3% on the previous year.

While Ofsted said there were some capacity issues in the fostering market due to the increase in places not keeping pace with the rise in the number of children in care, it found much greater cause for concern in relation to children’s homes.

The number of children’s homes, which house around 6,500 children, rose 6% on the previous year, with places going up 1% – meaning more children are getting to live in smaller units. But, mirroring longstanding patterns, the North West saw the largest rise in homes – 11% – while the more expensive South East experienced a 3% decrease.

Around half of all those in children’s homes were placed more than 20 miles from home and a quarter were more than 50 miles away, a pattern that was consistent across age groups.

‘Growing sense of frustration’

Stanley said the situation was fuelling a “growing sense of anxiety and frustration in the system” among local authorities.

What are unregulated and unregistered homes?

  • Unregulated children’s homes are allowed by law and involve the provision of support – but not care – to a looked-after child, typically over 16, to help them to live independently. Supported living is the most common form.
  • Unregistered homes are those that are illegally providing care without registering with Ofsted as a children’s home. In 2018-19, the regulator investigated more than 150 potentially unregistered homes, most of which (around 100) should have been registered.

She added that councils’ increasing use of unregulated and unregistered provision – highlighted in a recent Guardian story – was an inevitable response.

“There are worrying issues around providers who do not register, and close when we uncover their existence and [then] are opening somewhere else,” Stanley said.

In its report, Ofsted said the definition of what constituted a registered home needed strengthening and that it should have stronger oversight of unregulated provision. It is in conversation with the Department for Education (DfE) around potentially expanding its toolkit to tackle rogue providers without the need to go through long, costly legal proceedings, Stanley added.

The lack of skills and training among the children’s home workforce, particularly in weaker-performing homes, was another issue highlighted by the report.

Ofsted found that the proportion of staff with the required level 3 qualification had risen by eight percentage points to 61% in 2018-19, with a further 21% working towards it. The number of home managers with the required level 5 award – which they have three years to complete – rose to 51%.

However, the report said: “A common feature of inadequate children’s homes is limited capacity of the workforce to meet
the needs of the children. This is usually because workers have inadequate training, receive poor support or lack management oversight or leadership.”

It called for a review of the type of qualifications needed, backed by investment to implement it, and action to raise the status of the workforce.

Performance dip among secure homes

Ofsted’s report also found cause for concern in the performance of England’s 14 hugely oversubscribed secure children’s homes – for which, it pointed out, around 20 children are waiting for a placement in at any given time.

Since last year, the number of secure homes rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ had dropped from 10 to eight, while the number deemed ‘inadequate’ rose from one to four, the report said.

It said this was driven by weak leadership, recruitment and retention problems, lack of training and poor record-keeping.

More broadly, however, social care providers inspected by Ofsted achieved a solid showing, with 84% judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ at their last full inspection as of the end of the 2018-19 reporting period – the same figure as the previous year.

‘Heartening’ progress for local authorities

That sense of consolidation was mirrored across the wider children’s social care picture with Ofsted noting “heartening” progress among local authority children’s services despite their bleak financial operating environment.

The proportion of councils achieving ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ grades under the two-year-old ILACS inspection framework rose from 42% to 48% in 2018-19.

Stanley said that responses to issues identified in a review of the new framework published last autumn – such as tweaking the size of inspection teams depending on the council visited, and increasing oversight – had already been put in place.

She added that the evidence was that focused visits – 61 of of which were carried out over the year in authorities rated requires improvement or above – were “enabling us to catch people before they fall” by identifying improvement areas outside of a graded full inspection.

No room for complacency

Stanley said that despite the positive statistics under ILACS, there was no room for complacency given the speed at which “fragile” children’s services could deteriorate in the face of sudden corporate or staffing changes.

But she said it was important people realised “how hard colleagues in children’s social care are working in difficult circumstances”.

“[Given the budgetary] challenges, and the increase in demand for services – that they are improving in that context, I take my hat off to them and wholeheartedly thank them for work they are doing in hard times to make difference to children,” Stanley said.