Briefing 238

August 2018

Fostering Better Outcomes

Summary

This briefing is on Fostering Better Outcomes, the Department for Education (DfE) response to the Education Select Committee (ESC) report into fostering and the Foster Care in England (FCE) report commissioned by the DfE completed by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers.  The response was published in July 2018 and is available at:  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/727613/Fostering_better_outcomes_.pdf

The Education Select Committee report is available at:
https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmeduc/340/340.pdf

The Foster Care in England report is available at:
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/679320/Foster_Care_in_England_Review.pdf

The report sets out the DfE’s vision for Foster Care and five overarching ambitions to achieve this vision.  The report describes how the DfE plans to make this vision a reality and includes its response to the recommendations in the ESC and the FCE reports. The report is organised into chapters on:

 Introduction including Vision for Foster Care

  1. Experiences of Children and Young People in Foster Care
  2. Stability and Permanence
  3. Supporting Foster Families
  4. Practice Improvement
  5. Sufficiency and Markets
  6. Implementation and Measuring Progress

The report includes as Annexes the recommendations from the reports it is responding to.

Introduction and the Vision for Foster Care

The report sets out the vision for Foster Care as:

“Our vision is for all children in foster care to have stable lives, establish trusted relationships, to feel cared for and to benefit from high quality foster care for as long as they need it. We want a care system in which children and young people can experience a ‘normal life’ and to have the opportunities that other children have access to.  Children’s needs – and views – should be the driving force for all decisions made about their care.”

The vision is supported by five overarching ambitions which are:

  1. Children are listened to and involved in decisions about their lives;
  2. Foster parents receive the support and respect they need and deserve to care for children;
  3. There are enough high-quality fostering placements, in the right place, at the right time;
  4. LAs commission placements according to the needs of the child;
  5. Children experience stability regardless of permanence plan.

The report then outlines the elements of a well-functioning foster care system that would achieve the ambitions. 

The report places the response to the ESC and FCE reports on fostering into the context of the wider reforms to children’s social are set out in Putting Children First in 2016 and the implementation of the Children and Social work Act 2017.  It also notes that many of the recommendations from the two reports were not directed at central government.  The response focuses on the areas where central government can have the greatest impact while making clear it supports the recommendations aimed at local government or other professionals and organisations.

1. Experiences of Children and Young People in foster Care

The report notes the positive views of many children in care about their foster placements – a chance to “stand still” and “be normal”.  The majority of children in a survey by the Children’s Commissioner said the best thing about care was their foster family and feeling part of the family.  Less positively the report notes that both the ESC and FCE reports found that children and young people do not always feel listened to. Consultation could be variable and tokenistic. The Government wants all decisions to be driven by the well-being of the child.  To reflect this, the DfE wants to see a “more determined effort to ensure that children’s voices are used to identify and drive improvements.”  The value of advocacy is highlighted and as is the desire for every looked after child to know about the advocacy support they are entitled to.

The report highlights the findings from the evidence submitted to the two reviews that referral information about children and young people too often reflects risks posed rather than who they are and their needs. Children and Young People also want more and better information about foster parents prior to placement.

For children and young people keeping in touch is consistently one of the most important issues. Both reviews reflected that children do not always have the contact they want with family, friends and siblings. The report advocates that all service providers should consider how contact or keeping in touch can best be managed and that social workers should talk to children about who is important to them, including former foster carers.

2. Stability and Permanence

The importance of stability is recognised as is the reflection in the FCE report that some placement moves are necessary, especially when supporting a plan for permanence.

The report notes that while there is excellent practice in decision making and care planning this is not universal and that improving practice in this area is a priority.  To this end the DfE will introduce a training package to support the continuous professional development of social workers in Local Authorities (LAs) that want to improve their decision making on permanence. The introduction of the legal definition of long-term fostering in 2015 is noted and DfE plans to monitor emerging research to understand how this is working in practice, particularly the way in which long-term foster care is defined in care planning and recording.

The report agrees with FCE report’s recommendation that foster care could be used to help families stay together.  Using evidence from practice the DfE encourages LAs to consider the benefits of fostering on the edge of care or shared care.

The report advocates that all permanence options should be considered for a child if they cannot return home to their birth parents.  Stability is the overarching aim.  The report says that the DfE will continue to urge LAs to think how Fostering for Adoption could be more widely used. As an innovative approach to improving permanence the report gives the example of the partnership between a LA and TACT Fostering and Adoption where TACT is contracted to provide a single permanence service covering adoption, special guardianship and fostering services. 

Finally, in this section the DfE urges LAs and Independent Fostering Agencies (IFAs) to discuss Staying Put with young people and foster parents at an earlier stage.  The DfE recognises some of the difficulties in the implementation of Staying Put and commits to using evidence from its role out to refine the policy to help overcome barriers to implementation. 

3. Supporting Foster Families

The report quotes the ESC saying:

“…if foster carers are to be treated with the measure of equality that they deserve, they must have their voice heard, their needs met, and their development supported.”

The DfE says that foster parents must be respected.  It wants to see more delegation of day to day decisions to foster parents. The DfE plans to revise guidance to make clear that foster parents must be involved in all decisions and reviews. It will support their empowerment by working with LAs to test a default approach to the delegation of authority on day to day decisions. 

The importance of peer support for foster parents is noted and DfE encourages LAs to consider how this can be facilitated including access to respite.

The ESC report highlighted the limited nature of some foster parent training. While DfE is unconvinced that a national accreditation or foster care qualification would be meaningful or helpful they will work with the sector on whether the Training and Development Standards for foster parents are still fit for purpose.  There is also a commitment from the DfE to work with the Fostering Network and others to promote a revised and strengthened Foster Care Charter.

The FCE report noted the impact on foster carers of allegations.  The DfE asks fostering services to ensure their processes are right to manage allegations properly and that foster parents are properly prepared for what will happen if allegations arise. 

The ESC and the FCE reports came to different views on the adequacy or not of current allowances, including the impact of tax and benefits. The ESC saw allowances as insufficient in many cases while the FCE report did not believe current payments were inadequate. DfE expects all fostering services to pay foster parents at the National Minimum Allowance rate.  Both reports were clear they did not support a formal employment status for foster parents. The DfE says it is imperative Foster Parents are treated properly to reflect their value and the respect they should be held in. The DfE believes that any change in the employment status of foster parents would have a fundamental impact on the family-centred nature of fostering.

4. Practice Improvement

Both the FCE and the ESC reports were broadly positive about the existing legislation and guidance, but highlighted areas were the guidance was silent or unclear.  The ESC highlighted a lack of consistency in its application. 

The DfE response is that they will revise guidance to address issues that are not clear and specifically mentions expectations on delegated authority, physical affection, role of foster parents in reviews and meetings, value and respect to foster parents, contact with birth families and siblings, referral information and quality of preparation for transitions.  They will also work with Ofsted to explore whether there could be benefits in introducing Quality Standards for Fostering. 

The report notes how Partners in Practice LAs have demonstrated there is an appetite for taking more creative approaches.  The DfE plans to establish a network of Fostering Trailblazers to identify what works and tackle fostering practice issues in innovative and flexible ways.

The ESC report highlighted the problems created by the high turnover of social workers for children, foster parents and fostering services. The DfE says that its reforms are tackling the issues caused by high turnover of social workers, high caseloads and quality of social work.  The reforms mentioned include Frontline and Step Up to Social Work and raising the quality of training and standards of practice through the creation of the new regulator Social Work England.

The report discusses children and young people’s concern about the number of people involved in their lives and that sometimes they do not know what these people do.  The need for oversight and scrutiny of local systems to be proportionate and effective is recognised.  The DfE says it wants to work with the sector and Ofsted to identify where practice has the right balance of scrutiny, support and intervention for foster families.  The DfE also plans to work with organisations representing IROs and LAs to consider how the role of IRO can be used to best effect.

5. Sufficiency and Markets

Ofsted data shows that while the number of friends and families carers increased in 2016/17 there continues to be a decrease in the number of approved fostering households and overall there are fewer places available for children.  

The FCE report found that LAs rarely have choice in placements. The FCE report said:

“Despite the Ofsted data, our understanding of the availability and skills of foster carers is not good enough. We can’t expect to recruit the right number and type of foster carers and in the right parts of the country, when we know so little about the capabilities and location of current carers… More needs to be done to understand the number and needs of children in care (the demand) and the number of carers and their ability to care for different sorts of children (the supply) and the interplay between the two.”

The DfE will explore whether and how digital solutions could help give a more accurate picture of capacity locally and nationally to drive targeted recruitment and streamline vacancy management.  The FCE report also found that LAs are not routinely completing or doing well their requirement to plan for sufficiency for foster placements. The DfE says it will work with Ofsted to identify whether existing national data collection and insight from inspection reports can inform or drive improved sufficiency planning.  This could help LAs have a better understanding of capacity and help planning for future demand.

The report notes the competitive nature of foster carer recruitment with each agency competing for carers.  The DfE supports the FCE report recommendation for more regional cooperation in recruitment with LAs and IFAs working together.  The report draws attention to initiatives such as the DfE investment in supporting the Fostering Network and three LA and IFA consortia to develop innovative recruitment practice.  The DfE encourages all agencies to think about whether they intentionally or unintentionally narrow the demographics they appeal to in recruitment.

Both the ESC and FCE reports highlighted the value of having LA and IFA provision. The DfE agrees a mixed market is right and necessary.  The report looks at the cost of foster care and draws on the analysis undertaken in the FCE report.  This report found that making ‘like for like’ comparison in service provision and cost analysis was extremely difficult.  They concluded that:

“..the shortage of particular placement types have enabled IFAs to dominate the marketplace, where they have been able to “dictate pricing” and “there is little sign of healthy competition”.”

The FCE report found a lack of understanding driving up costs and recommended increased sharing of price information and of transparency.  The DfE response to these problems is that they will develop tools, resources and approaches to help LAs better understand the costs of their fostering services and placements. 

Both reports raised concerns that the current commissioning processes are not driven by the needs of children.  The FCE report said that it thought better commissioning of IFAs would lower the cost of fostering and improve its quality.  The ESC described the commissioning picture as:

“There is concern over the “growing trend” of price-led commissioning by local authorities.  We were told of several examples of procurement exercises “where the emphasis is on price over quality or outcomes”, with contracts regularly weighting up to 70% on price and 30% on quality.”

The report describes some of the current initiatives to address the problems in commissioning such as those from the South East Improvement Partnership and in Greater Manchester. The DfE will look at the commonalities between the fostering and residential care sectors and weigh up the benefits of the new approaches being tested.

6. Implementation and Measuring Progress

The ESC and FCE reports both identified the need for clearer and more determined leadership across children’s social care. The DfE will establish the National Stability Forum for Children’s Social Care.  This forum will provide leadership across the sector and be chaired by the Director General at the DfE with responsibility for children’s social care.  It will work with the Adoption Leadership and the Residential Care Leadership boards and bring together the cross-system reform programme and ensure consistency and alignment of approach.  Over time the DfE hopes the Forum will promote stability, better life chances and outcomes for children in the care of the state.

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