Position Paper, Future Cities Project
We are confident that the proposals set out in this Green Paper will deliver a step change in the outcomes of children in care.
For all the grandiose rhetoric the proposals are in fact rather modest. The Green Paper follows on from the Quality Protects initiative in 1998 – the government’s first attempt to ‘transform’ children’s social care; the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 which extended the support given to young people leaving care; and finally, the duty in the Children Act 2004 requiring local authorities to promote their education. It is, to be blunt, more of the same. This is not to suggest that it contains proposals without merit but neither is it the ‘radical package’ claimed by the authors.
Any attempt to resettle children with their families where appropriate, particularly short-term stayers or those who are in and out of the care system, is clearly a good thing. And the ‘lack of a consistent adult’ in these children’s lives as they typically work their way through numerous social workers and placements, of variable quality, during their time in care is as longstanding as it is outrageous. Solving these two problems, and improving the quality and standards of care, would massively improve the lives of children in the care system. But these things are widely understood within the social care sector and proposals to improve things, however vague, are unlikely to court much controversy.
Some proposals however commonsense contradict wider government policy. The notion that services for children and adults respectively, and the professionals within them, must work together is at once obvious and brimming with hypocrisy. It was this government’s Children Act 2004 that separated children’s and adult’s social services in an effort to draw together all children’s services under a single roof and thus blur any distinction between services for the tiny proportion of children ‘in need’ and the rest of the 11 million. Whereas other proposals such as independent social care practices and making Independent Reviewing Officers even more independent, and revised commissioning arrangements and child-centred budgets, are as likely to exacerbate this fragmentation of social care planning and the care experience.
We are told that the ‘outcomes’ for children in care must improve and that “the State cannot and must not accept any less for them than we would for our own children”. A worthy statement but it inevitably draws attention to its own very poor record. Many of the nation’s homeless – and reportedly 4 in 5 Big Issue sellers – were once in care, as were a quarter of the adult prison population. Only 1 in 10 of children ‘looked after’ (to use the official terminology) get 5 good GCSEs, compared with more than half of all children. So why is it “the school environment and the way in which teachers and other school staff work with them”, rather than the content of the education children in the care system receive, that is deemed “vital to their chances of success”. Education is not about therapeutic classrooms and teaching is not about ‘best practice’. It is about challenging young people and giving them something to aim for. In our view, this reflects the abandonment rather than the defence of a “first class education” based on the promotion of learning and the transfer of knowledge for its own sake. That they find themselves in poorly performing schools is an argument for better schools not just sympathetic admissions policies or the appointment of ‘virtual headteachers’ to fight their corner. Similarly while free transport will help in the short term to traverse the distance between placement and school, it is the high mobility between placements themselves that is causing this problem.
Just 1 in 100 will go on to university. But in the absence of such a commitment, bursaries for higher education may improve access, but to an increasingly inferior education as evidenced in the trajectory over the past decade or so. It is not despite but because of their difficult circumstances that children in the care system need a good education all the more. As a society we suffer from a culture of low expectations but never more than on behalf of these children. And yet for those leaving the care system, though the trajectory of compounded disadvantage needs to be addressed, there are wider trends that must also be considered. It is clearly the case that local authorities have traditionally been keen to offload their young people as soon as possible, and as a consequence only make them more likely to encounter problems with housing, offending etc. Not least, it might be added, because of the paucity of funds available to them to do otherwise. But as with the requirements in the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the Green Paper not only reflects a recognition of the need to treat these young people better and support them as any parent would beyond the age of 16 “as long as they need it”, but it also reflects wider trends in our stay-at-home society. While imposing a duty on local authorities to support young people in their foster placements until the age of 21 (and beyond where they continue in their education) may seem at first sight commendable, it is also cause for concern in as far as it postpones and discourages the transition of care-leavers into adulthood. Similarly while more (and better) supported accommodation would no doubt be welcome, this doesn’t solve the wider problem of young people, particularly those leaving the care system, finding somewhere decent to live independently. After all, the housing shortage and the failure of the government to address it is only felt more acutely by this group of young people.
To conclude, radical change is needed but Care Matters is not it. No amount of auditing, inspecting, ministerial ‘stock-taking’ or political prioritising will solve this problem. An obsession with checks and balances and market mechanisms, and a refusal to commit resources and free up professionals and local administrators to do their jobs, only further distances those charged with children’s social care from the business of really looking after them. It only burdens them with pointless paper trails that further bureaucratise an already targets lead and managerial social care system. The creation of children in care councils, like youth parliaments before them, will only succeed in patronising young people by providing toothless forums for them to air their discontent about the inadequacy of their care – a problem incidentally which you might expect a ‘radical package’ such as this to address head-on rather than consulting upon ad infinitum.
One proposal we wholeheartedly agree with at the Future Cities Project is that we need a national debate on ‘who care is for’? The government, keen to extend notions of statutory safeguarding and corporate parenting, and a children’s social care sector keen to shake off its ‘Cinderella service’ image and renew its battered reputation following the Laming Inquiry, both seem intent on extending their reach into families lives and assuming responsibility for the well-being of all children – a curious ambition for an apparently cash-strapped and crisis-ridden sector, and a government all too conscious of the impending Comprehensive Spending Review. But given the abysmal record of the State in ‘looking after’ the small minority of children in its ‘care’, this consultation should rather be seen as an opportunity to reflect on the consequences of it assuming such a role.