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The Perils Of Setting Fire To Children’s Residential Child Care

The perils of setting fire to children’s residential child care

In brief

  • This is a situation fraught with danger.
  • We need containment of thinking.
  • We need deep extensive extended thinking before acting. 
  • Considering changes to the funding of children’s homes has to be thought about to ensure the sector survives.
  • The size of the children’s homes sector is the smallest in history, we cannot afford to lose any of the current total. We need to be able to feed the learning into wider thinking regarding the practice, delivery and funding of children’s care.
  • We do not want to find ourselves with a mass loss of social ecology, with homes and services lost and no way to get them back.
  • Residential care is where the ills of the children’s social care system are seen. The solution is not to set fire to the estate, and to have to react to the consequences, but to act responsively after reflection, systemically, at every stage of a journey to and though care.

 

Above our heads is the International Space Station (ISS). Meanwhile those of us involved with children’s social care are firmly terrestrial.

Both sets of people going round in circles. Neither with their feet firmly on the ground. Both involved in experiments. Both lighting fires.

Last year saw various Select Committees giving consideration to funding, fees, profits, and quality of children’s social care placements. Conclusions were drawn from a narrow evidence base. One committee called for a review by the Competition and Markets Authority by the end of December. This seems now to have been superseded by the new government promising a review of the entire care system.

Comment since then has seen a gradual heightening of criticism of the privately funded profit making providers of fostering and children’s homes placement.

There are two important components necessary in evaluating research and analysis, comment, articles or publication regarding this area; there are few suitably qualified and experienced people who might be best approached to undertake the work; both demand, local authorities, and supply, providers, need to be addressed.

Recently there have been two reports published that do have the necessary components.

The PSSRU Unit Costs 2019 were published in late December.

The NCERCC and Revolution Consulting report into the prices paid by local authorities for children’s homes places was published recently. The average price paid for a children’s homes place in the private and voluntary sector in the year to 31 March 2019 was £3,970 per week. Local Authority homes priced on an equivalent basis to the independent sector cost 20% more than independent sector places at £4,750 per week.

The reports show a good degree of congruence.

The insight that local authority placements cost more than the independent sector is a piece of data that contradicts the Select Committees’ thinking, and subsequent commentaries.

There are further reports are expected regarding costs, prices, pressures. The ICHA has just published its annual State of the sector self-report by providers in the first 2 months of any year.

With a fragmented, contested and disparate base we have no consensus as to the reality of the situation being faced. Single pieces of data can be seen to be deployed to promote a particular preconceived position.

It needs stating, this is a situation fraught with danger. It has to be stated by someone independent. I have worked for 45 years in, with and for residential child care for local authority, independent and voluntary organisations – roughly in equal measure. I recently moved on from being ICHA CEO to return to NCERCC, independent of any funder, working with local authorities and providers.

All that I know leads me to the most important statement to be made addressing where we are now.

We need containment of thinking. We need deep extensive extended thinking before acting.

The DfE Expert Reference Group, of which I was a member, that led to the recommendation of the need for Quality Standards for children’s homes, met twice weekly for three months.

The Quality Standards authoring group, of which I was a member, worked over some months to achieve consensus resulting in a successful set of regulations that connect theory to practice.

Let me explain the situation and what containment is needed using two analogies, the current experiments on board the International Space Station, and then the recent Australian bushfires. Only then will I be able to make a tentative conclusion. Data seems to be being overlooked, maybe an analogy or two can get the message across better?

Fire behaves different when gravity is absent. There is reason to believe fires could be more dangerous on the Moon than on Earth.

The experiments on board the ISS involve lighting controlled small fires in low gravity in order to study their behaviour with the purpose of finding what will improve the selection of materials and fire safety strategies.

Removing gravity eliminates natural convection resulting in flames instead of the characteristic teardrop shape becoming spherical or elongated.

The analogy is to the funding of children’s social care. This needs controlled and extensive research so we will know the consequences of any action. We must not act thinking the situation is one thing, with a set of expected consequences, when it is another. This way lies unintended, unexpected consequences. We must know what we are doing.

Looking at Parliamentary and media comment over the past year it seems there is momentum to change how children’s homes are funded but the idea has been forwarded without having considered consequences.

There is one thought through proposal, Carebank, by Kathy Evans of Children England. There are a few others ideas but these are not the equal in scope, function, detail or ambition.

There is a need for a critique of Carebank, and for other proposals. One critique is that Carebank is only for placements rather than within wider rethinking of social care.

This is also a potential critique of the idea as part of a review of care. It is a vast project and needs to be taken steadily and given time, years, so that it does not produce a series of unconnected single focus reviews of every sector of social care. It has to be systemic and it has to be more than the sum of the parts. Taking a wider system perspective matters.

Yet further caution has to be given to a spending review with a determination to introduce formula funding. The needs of each child in care are unique and require a creative individual response. There is no ‘unit cost’ and this idea should be consciously discarded as inappropriate in any spending review. The uniqueness of need is why in the  NCERCC/Revolution Consulting analysis of fees we include every price paid of every placement. The elongated range of prices equates to the diversity and complexity of need.

Current events in Australia takes our thinking further, and bolster cautions before action. Fire on the planet when out of control has terrifying consequences.

The precursors to the bushfires seem frighteningly like the current situation regarding social care funding.

Overall there is a lack of strategy. Looking closer at the reasons they include a lack of planned preparations, shelved for another day for a myriad of reasons, some social, financial, some economic; service cuts; local planning rather than regional and national; inappropriate, unecological expansion of building; lack of emergency and contingency plans; unhelpful climate – dry, winds; fire sucks in oxygen from the surrounds; people setting small fires, some accidentally, some unthinkingly and some purposefully, some apparently may be mendacious, some planned as protective that got out of control. Smaller fires connect to others to form bigger ones. Smoulders become burns become conflagrations consuming previous lifestyles.

Considering changes to the funding of children’s homes has to be thought about to ensure the sector survives. A taskforce is needed, not a panel, not an individual. It has to be led by a truly independent person, or people. It must devise its own aims and objectives, task and function. It must be independent of government. It must report to the Minister. In England social care of children is a political project, in other countries it is a consensus project. Taking forwards a consensus over what is needed over a generation is the ambition required.

There are some aspects on which there is agreement, or near. No one thinks we can do without children’s homes, or at least well into the foreseeable future.

For some young people residential care is an essential component of recovery.  It is not something that becomes necessary because there are not enough people properly trained to treat individuals outside of it. We know the needs of young people for whom it is suited. Residential care can be the only place some such young people can have consistent access to what they need to recover.

Many know there is no one thing that is a children’s home, each is unique. Many know we have homes of various intensity of provision, and many world class examples. The size of the children’s homes sector is the smallest in history, we cannot afford to lose any of the current total.

For the present, learning from the analogies, when considering funding for residential child care, we need to protect ourselves from reactive fixing. We need experimental ‘burns’ not ‘bushfires’ where the damage only becomes clear once fires have been doused. We need to be able to feed the learning into wider thinking regarding the practice, delivery and funding of children’s care.

We do not want to find ourselves with a mass loss of social ecology, with homes and services lost and no way to get them back. There are examples where this has occurred in the USA and Australia. It requires long involvement to remember there were very critical reports written too on local authority projects in this country with an aim to work without children’s homes. These might have been decades ago but they might still have relevant learning.

Residential care is where the ills of the children’s social care system are seen. The solution is not to set fire to the estate, and to have to react to the consequences, but to act responsively after reflection, systemically, at every stage of a journey to and though care. To get to a different end of a story you need to have different chapters.

It would be a mistake to think we are at a moment to make conclusions. We need to appreciate we know little. We do not have the data, just headlines. We do not know what happens with the twists of the plot. We need solid research, no book gets written without it. A good book is enhanced by a good editor. The implications of a wrong move make for absorbing fiction but big problems in real life. In reality we are just about getting ready to write the outlines of the writing of the story.

NCERCC