Thousands of children in care lacking stability

Vulnerable children in care are experiencing disruption in their lives by changing homes, schools and social workers, the children’s commissioner has said.

In her second Stability Index examining children’s experiences of care, Anne Longfield warns that while many children receive consistent care, thousands are experiencing multiple disruptions during their time in care.

“It is very concerning that the number of children having to move around the system has hardly changed over the last year. Over one in five children in care are not in the good or outstanding schools they should be, and I am worried that the system has given up on the hundreds of children bouncing around from one poor school to another. I want all local authorities to make reducing instability a priority and to measure it. I would also like to see Ofsted assessing the stability of children in care as part of their inspections and for the Department for Education to start asking for data on this in their annual returns from Local Authorities,” said Anne Longfield.

The Stability Index found:

  • Almost 2,400 children changed home, school and social worker over the last twelve months.
  • Across two years, over 3,000 children had to move home four or more times.
  • Over three years, around 2,500 children moved home five or more times.
  • 4,300 children in care moved school in the middle of the year, and their new school was 24 miles away on average.
  • Around 400 children who moved school ended up missing a whole term as a result.

The research suggests that older children – especially those entering care from the age of 12 to 15 – are most at risk of instability, and may need extra support to prevent placements breaking down. It also highlights the importance of getting children in care into the best schools: children at poor-performing schools are more likely to experience a school move, and less likely to move to a better school. By comparison, those in good schools are less likely to move, and when they do it is usually to another good school.

The Children’s Commissioner created the annual Stability Index last year to encourage councils to hold themselves to account for children moving around the system and to work towards improving the system and ultimately the lives of children in care.

“The care system does work for many thousands of children but our ambition should be for every child growing up in care to have the same chances to live happy, healthy and rewarding lives as any other child. We put that at risk if we are expecting some children to constantly change school and home,” added Ms Longfield.

However, Cllr Richard Watts, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, highlighted that councils are currently supporting record numbers of children and young people through the care system. Ninety children a day entered care in the last year, and councils saw the biggest annual increase of children in care since 2010. This is against a backdrop of unprecedented cuts to local authority budgets, with children’s services alone facing a funding gap of around £2 billion by 2020.

“It is really important that children have the best possible placement or school place to meet their needs, and no child should be kept in an inappropriate environment simply to avoid another move. Decisions about the care of individual children and young people must be made with the best interests of those children firmly in mind, and there will be situations where moves are required despite the best possible efforts of social workers, carers, teachers and often children themselves to make circumstances work,” he added.

“While 91 per cent of council-maintained schools are good or outstanding, no council wants to see any child placed in a poor school. This is why councils should be allowed to step in and improve struggling schools that are outside of local authority control. Across the country, hundreds of schools, often in disadvantaged areas, are already being turned around thanks to the intervention of councils to deliver and maintain strong leadership, outstanding classroom teaching and appoint effective support staff and governors.

“Clearly there is more that can be done to make sure that every child has the positive experience of care that the majority receive, and we will ensure that these findings are shared widely with councils across the country, while supporting local areas to learn from good practice elsewhere.

“But there is also a role for government to play, in supporting councils to provide the best possible experience for children in care, and it is disappointing the report makes little mention of this or recognises the funding pressures and demand facing council children’s services. A national workforce strategy would go a long way towards addressing the shortage of children’s social workers. We would also like to see a national recruitment campaign for foster carers to make sure we have a choice of families to place children with to best meet their needs,” he concluded.

Stuart Gallimore, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, added: “Finding safe, loving and stable placements that meet the needs of all children in our care is a priority for local authorities. The Stability Index brings attention to this important area of practice, however, headline figures mask the complexities of an individual child’s journey in care. There is often a need to offer short term placements to support good matching processes between families and children, for example. The number of children experiencing multiple types of instability within the same year is worrying, but this represents around 3% of the total care population. All children’s services departments have intensive strategies in place to keep placement instability to a minimum, recognising that the children and young people concerned have often had difficult early life experiences and just like other children benefit greatly from a stable, nurturing environment.

“Any level of instability is a cause for concern, but it is important to consider these findings in context. Local authorities are looking after more children, many of whom have increasingly complex needs, with no commensurate additional government funding and no nation-wide strategy to address the national shortage of foster carers or residential care placements. This is despite research indicating greater choice leads to greater placement stability. As more and more schools become academies the ability of local authorities to compel them to prioritise the admission of children in care is also diminished which can result in these children waiting months for a school place. All that learning cannot easily, if ever, be regained which leads to further disadvantage. We ask government to support measures that would enable local authorities to drive improvements in stability for many vulnerable children and young people,” he concluded.

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