Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

2  The care system in England

10. At any one time around 60,000 children are looked after by local authorities in England, representing roughly 0.5% of all children.[5] Children enter care for many different reasons. 62% of the current care population came into care because of abuse or neglect; others due to family "dysfunction" or "acute stress", absent parenting, a parental illness or disability, or "socially unacceptable behaviour". Four per cent are looked after because of their own disability, and just under six per cent are unaccompanied asylum-seekers.

11. The Children Act 1989 provided two main routes through which children could become looked after: care orders and voluntary accommodation. A care order is a court order made under section 31 of the 1989 Act which places a child compulsorily in the care of a designated local authority. The court may only make a care order if it is satisfied that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm attributable to the care given or likely to be given to the child, or to the child being beyond parental control. The local authority assumes parental responsibility, shared with the birth parents, for that child. Under section 20 of the 1989 Act, children can come into the care of a local authority by a voluntary agreement. Parental responsibility remains with the parents or primary carer, and parents may remove their children from such accommodation at any time, without notice. At 31st March 2008, 63% of looked-after children were on interim or full care orders, and 30% were voluntarily accommodated. Most of the remainder were placed for adoption.

12. The number of children in care has fallen significantly over the past 30 years, reaching a low in the mid-1990s. Numbers then rose modestly to 2004, since when they have fallen very slightly. Surprisingly, fewer children are now entering care than in 1994, when the care population was at its lowest, but they are staying longer.[6] This is strongly associated with the greater proportion who are in care under section 31 care orders rather than section 20 voluntary agreements.[7] However, these proportions vary widely between local authorities.[8] As many as 85,000 children will spend some time in care over the course of a year, with many entering and leaving the system very rapidly; only 13% stay in the care system for five years or more.[9] Many children will have more than one spell in care.

Source: Health Committee, Second Report of Session 1997-98, Children looked after by local authorities, HC 319-I; DH, Children Looked After by LAs, year ending 31 March 1998; DCSF, Statistical First Release 40, November 2004; DCSF, Statistical First Release 23, September 2008.

13. Despite falling numbers of children in care, the rising unit costs of placements has led to a substantial increase in expenditure.[10] Total gross expenditure on children in care in 2007-08 was £2.19 billion, 51% of which was spent on fostering services and 41% on children's homes. The average cost per looked-after child per week across all placements was £774. For children in residential homes the average was £2,428, and for foster care £489.[11] 71% of looked-after children are cared for in foster placements, living with an individual in their family home.[12] Foster carers must be approved by fostering services registered with Ofsted; these can be local authorities, or voluntary or private sector agencies. There are currently 276 independent and 140 local authority fostering agencies.[13] 14% are placed in residential care, principally in Ofsted-registered children's homes. Ofsted inspect fostering services and children's homes against National Minimum Standards, introduced under the Care Standards Act 2000. In 2006, only around a quarter of children's homes were meeting 90% or more of the Standards; one in four fostering services were failing to meet the standard on providing suitable carers.[14]

Figure 3: Expenditure on looked-after children, numbers of children looked after and number of days of care provided, years ending 31 March

Source: Beyond Care Matters: Future of the care population working group (DfES 2007)

14. Each child in the care system should have a "care plan" setting out their needs and the services required to meet them. A care plan should be drawn up before the child becomes looked after, or in the case of emergency entry to care, within 14 days. It includes a health plan and personal education plan, and informs the decision about the most appropriate placement for the child. Statutory reviews of care plans should take place at least every six months, chaired by social workers with no involvement in the case (Independent Reviewing Officers).

Historical development of the care system

15. The historical development of the child care system in England has been influenced by shifts of emphasis in ideas about the purpose of the system, often precipitated by scandals and their impact on public opinion.[15] Prior to the Second World War, provision for children who could not live with their parents had principally evolved from workhouses under the 1834 Poor Law. The death of a child, Dennis O'Neill, beaten and starved to death in 1945 in a foster home subject only to cursory inspection, prompted a wholesale review. The Curtis Report, published in 1946, set out the basic form of the present care system and the principles underlying it, including the ideal of bringing up each child in a way resembling as closely as possible ordinary family life. The Children Act 1948 established children's departments in every local authority to oversee children's care as a result. Since then, the balance of policy has tipped back and forth between attempts to improve the care system and attempts to keep children out of it.[16] The latter included the 1963 Children and Young Persons Act, which for the first time authorised local authorities to spend money in order to avoid the need to receive children into care, and the 1975 Children Act which introduced measures to make it easier for children to be adopted.

16. Our predecessors, the Social Services Select Committee, published an influential report on the subject of children in care in 1984.[17] They criticised the care system for its failure to plan effectively for children, disregard of parents' rights, neglect of children's education, and the poor outcomes of care leavers. The Committee concluded that the system needed to be rebalanced to allow for more family support alongside out-of-home care and adoption. Their recommendation that a Child Care committee be established was accepted, and the work produced by that group led to the Children Act 1989. This profoundly important piece of legislation rationalised a large body of regulation concerning children in care. It sought to put the emphasis back on care as a service to parents rather than a punishment for inadequacy (hence voluntary "accommodation"), emphasised parents' rights and the least possible use of coercion, and introduced the category of "children in need", for whom local authorities were now required to provide services.[18] The 1989 Act also affirmed the right of children to be consulted on matters which concern them. An associated development was the "Looked-After Children system", a planning and recording system rolled out through the early 1990s better to assess and promote good outcomes for children in care.

17. In practice, the good intentions of the Children Act 1989 were subject to the resource constraints under which local authorities operated, and child protection work increasingly dominated children's social services to the detriment of family support and active intervention with children in care.[19] A number of child abuse scandals in residential homes in England and Wales came to light in the 1990s, and were investigated in reports by Sir William Utting (1997) and Sir Ronald Waterhouse (2000). Concerns raised by these reports led again to a greater emphasis on adoption as a route out of care, in a review commissioned by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair.[20] The initiative led to the introduction of the Adoption and Children Act 2002.

18. In 1998 the Department of Health launched the Quality Protects programme to support councils in transforming the management and delivery of children's social services. The programme led to the development of a number of key indicators of excessive movement between placements, and set outcome targets for all aspects of looked-after children's lives. It was backed by additional spending of £885 million over five years.[21] Quality Protects introduced the concept of "corporate parenting". The principle is that the local authority as a whole is the corporate parent of children in care, and thus has a legal and moral duty to provide the kind of support that any good parents would provide for their own children. This was to include enhancing children's quality of life as well as simply keeping them safe.

19. The Care Standards Act 2000 supported the introduction of National Minimum Standards for child care provision, and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 extended local authority responsibilities towards former looked-after children.[22] A new initiative, Choice Protects, was launched in March 2002 to improve outcomes for looked-after children through better placement stability, matching and choice. This programme was motivated partly by recognition that the emphasis on adoption had in some local authorities been achieved at the expense of improving standards and choice in foster and residential placements.[23] In 2003, a Social Exclusion Unit report on the education of children in care highlighted the factors behind this group of children's markedly poor educational performance; the Children Act 2004 would impose a duty on local authorities to promote the education of children in care.[24]

20. The 2003 Green Paper Every Child Matters widened the policy focus to all children, not just those in care, stressing the need for multi-agency collaboration and early intervention. The changes precipitated by Every Child Matters included the bringing together of responsibility for education and children's social services in the same government department for the first time since the 1940s, and the formation of children's services departments in local authorities with the same responsibilities. Lead Members and Directors of Children's Services became responsible for corporate parenting locally. Our predecessor Committee examined some of the issues relating to the Every Child Matters agenda—a number of which remain highly relevant to the present inquiry—in 2005.[25]

Current issues and Care Matters

21. Some improvements in the situation of children in or leaving care have been achieved since the 1990s; there have been increases in the proportion of care leavers in education and employment at age 19, for example, and far more care leavers now remain in touch with their local authority.[26] However, despite the large deployment of expertise and resources by the Quality Protects and Choice Protects initiatives, outcomes for children in care remain poor. In 2007, 13% of looked-after children who sat their GCSEs obtained at least 5 at grades A* to C, compared with 62% of all children. Attainment at Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 is also substantially lower for looked-after children, and they are seven times more likely to be permanently excluded from school. At the end of Year 11, 66% of children in care remained in full-time education compared to 80% of all school-leavers. Looked-after children aged 10 or over are more than twice as likely as other children to be cautioned or convicted for an offence. In the long term, those who have been in care are over-represented among teenage parents, drug users and prisoners.[27] Outcomes are poor even when compared to other children with roughly comparable backgrounds and problems.[28]

22. It was in recognition of this apparent lack of progress in outcomes, and continued evidence of chronic instability in looked-after children's lives, that the Government's Green Paper Care Matters was published in 2006. The Green Paper stated:

    Quite simply, it is now clear that this help [the Quality Protects programme] has not been sufficient. The life chances of all children have improved but those of children in care have not improved at the same rate. The result is that children in care are now at greater risk of being left behind than was the case a few years ago—the gap has actually grown. This is neither acceptable nor inevitable and we are determined through the proposals in this Green Paper to first halt the trend and secondly to reverse it. Addressing every aspect of these children's lives and every public service they encounter, the Green Paper aims to transform both the way in which the care system works for children and the quality of experience they and others on the edge of entering or leaving care actually receive. And in doing this, we are determined to put the voice of the child in care at the centre both of our reforms and of day-to-day practice.[29]

23. The premise of the Care Matters programme was that the corporate parent's aspirations for children in care should be exactly the same as any parent's aspirations for their own child. Poor outcomes for looked-after children are partly explicable by their extremely challenging and disadvantaged circumstances prior to coming into care, but the Government stated that "it is inexcusable and shameful that the care system seems all too often to reinforce this early disadvantage, rather than helping children to successfully overcome it." Time in care, however short, should make a positive difference to a child's life.[30]

24. In our report on the Children and Young Persons Bill, we referred to the progression from Green Paper to White Paper and to legislation as "an exemplary way for policy to be developed and implemented", and we congratulated the Government for a "thorough and serious consultative process".[31] Although we have heard much evidence that suggests the principles on which Care Matters is based need to be followed through with greater rigour and ambition, we stand by our assessment of the Government's process for arriving at its reform programme.

25. Care Matters acknowledges the majority of the problems that we have highlighted in our evidence. We do not doubt the Government's commitment to tackling these problems. What we have sought to concentrate on is where we believe that the excellent aspirations of the reform programme have not been rigorously carried through, where underlying causes of problems have not been addressed, or where opportunities for some sections of the care population have been missed.

26. We firmly believe that care should be seen as a potential solution for children and families in certain very difficult circumstances. It is, however, dispiriting to consider just how intractable serious deficiencies in the care system have been. The preoccupations of the Curtis Report included lack of stability, a shortage of good quality foster homes, and the low expectations that society had for children growing up in care. More than 60 years later, we still hear of children who go through multiple placements each year, children being slotted in to placements wherever a bed happens to be available, and teachers whose expectations for children's achievement far underestimate the child's own hopes.[32] That is not to deny that significant advances have of course been made; the care system today rests on a much more solid foundation, achieved by steady progress in legislation and in understanding of children. We must remember that there are children who experience the modern care system who are able to thrive because of it. However, we would be unwise to underestimate the challenges we continue to face in providing our most vulnerable children and young people with care in a stable and loving environment.

5   The figure as at 31 March 2008 was 59,500. DCSF, Statistical First Release 23, September 2008  Back

6   Martin Narey, Beyond Care Matters: Future of the care population working group report (DfES June 2007), p 9; Care Matters Green Paper, para 1.18 Back

7   Beyond Care Matters, para 19 Back

8   Ibid., para 21 Back

9   Care Matters Green Paper, para 1.23 Back

10   Beyond Care Matters, para 28; Care Matters Green Paper, para 1.13 Back

11   NHS Information Centre, Personal Social Services Expenditure and Unit Costs England 2007-08, February 2009 Back

12   DCSF, Statistical First Release 23, September 2008 Back

13   Ev 311 [Ofsted] Back

14   Care Matters Green Paper, paras 1.36-7 Back

15   Sonia Jackson, "Looking after children away from home, past and present", in Chase, Simon and Jackson (eds.), In care and after: a positive perspective (Abingdon, 2006) Back

16   Jackson, 'Looking after children', p16 Back

17   Social Services Committee, Second Report of Session 1983-84, Children in care, HC 360 Back

18   Jackson, 'Looking after children', p19 Back

19   Ibid., p 20; Q 57 [Professor Tunstill] Back

20   Care Matters Green Paper, para 1.11 Back

21   Ibid., para 1.10 Back

22   See para 180 below. Back

23   June Thoburn, Children in public out-of-home care: 21 years of policy (Action for Children, 2008), p 4 Back

24   Social Exclusion Unit, A Better Education for Children in Care, September 2003 Back

25   Education and Skills Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2004-05, Every Child Matters, HC 40-I Back

26   Care Matters Green Paper, para 1.11; the proportion of care leavers in education and employment at the age of 19 rose from 46% in 2002 to 59% in 2005, and over the same period the proportion remaining in touch with their local authority rose from 75% to 89%. Back

27   Care Matters Green Paper, para 1.16 Back

28   Ibid., para 1.14 Back

29   Ibid., Foreword Back

30   Ibid., para 1.3 Back

31   Children, Schools and Families Committee, First Report of Session 2007-08, Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords], HC 359, para 1 Back

32   See paras 61 and 84 below; Q 17 [Martin Narey]. Back

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