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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


19 MARCH 2008

  Q1 Chairman: I welcome our guests, Martin Narey, Pam Hibbert, Dr. Roger Morgan and Maxine Wrigley. I am tempted to shift to first names to make proceedings less formal. Is that all right? Roger, I shall keep calling you Dr. Morgan, if you want me to.

  Dr Morgan: Roger will do fine.

  Q2  Chairman: I will not call Martin "Your Excellency". We have known each other a long time. This is the first formal session of our inquiry into Looked-after children. The Committee believes strongly that this is a real marker for us. We are not members of an old Committee with a different name, but a new Committee that has very interesting and challenging responsibilities for children, schools and families and we want to start, in particular, with discussions about some of the most vulnerable children in our society. Some very interesting work has been going on and, today, we shall explore where we are in that regard. Various reports have been published of proceedings, one of which was chaired by Martin while Julian le Grand chaired another. We are aware of the literature and we have been doing our homework, but today is our opportunity to ask you, as experts, what stage has been reached and at what position are the Government as well those young children who are in care. Martin, I usually give witnesses a couple of minutes to explain all the circumstances, so will you describe in a nutshell the position of looked-after children?

  Martin Narey: Barnardo's has been very encouraged by what has happened with looked-after children over the past couple of years. It is not false modesty when I stress that the three people on my left know far more about the subject than me. I came to it relatively new towards the end of 2005 when I came to Barnardo's. My previous experience of looked-after children was locking up a lot of them in places such as Feltham. We published a very critical report in the summer of 2006, based on the experience of children in care whom we supported. We have been very pleased with the Government response to that report: the honest way that Alan Johnson acknowledged that current arrangements were simply inadequate, the determination to improve matters for looked-after children, and some of the things in the Green Paper or the White Paper and in the Bill or the implementation plan. For example, there are the matters that everyone knows about, such as children being moved during their GCSEs, the disproportionate number of children in care who are excluded from school, and the need to get children in care into the best schools. I have been very impressed about how that has been gripped, so I am encouraged.

  Q3  Chairman: Fine. Pam, what about you?

  Pam Hibbert: I share Martin's optimism—we have been pleased. I have been heavily involved in quite a number of stakeholder groups and in lobbying on the Bill. There are three areas, for me, where perhaps there is still quite a lot of work to be done. One is around advocacy for children in care—I still think that we do not have that right, and it is one of the things that we are lobbying hard about. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was a brilliant piece of legislation and has improved support for children leaving care, but we still do not do enough. We still have too many children leaving care before they are 18, so we are still concerned and think that more could be done. I was particularly disappointed about the missed opportunity in the current Bill for children from care who go into custody. We know that around 50% of children in custody will have had some sort of care experience. The Green Paper had some proposals for how they might continue to be supported, but those have been watered down considerably in the Bill. We think that that is a missed opportunity.

  Q4  Chairman: Thank you. Roger?

  Dr Morgan: As my role, statutorily, is to consult children—particularly children in care—I will try and base my evidence on their views. Four main points keep coming through to me from the children's consultations that we carry out. One is the need for individualisation of care, rather than assumptions about groups or quotas or whatever. The second is the need to consult children. While accepting that children cannot always have the care or decisions that they want, their views should always be sought and taken into account. We all say that that is happening, but I still hear many children telling me that that is not their experience yet—or consistently. The third is the need to be given information about what is happening to you, and the fourth is consistency of delivery. One of the worrying things that children have said about many of the current initiatives is that they agree with many of them—they would like to see some more, of course—but they are sceptical about whether their experience will consistently reflect the intentions. Finally, I should make a quick caveat. I started by saying that I would base my evidence on the views of children, rather like a researcher. I am based in the Office for Standards in Education, but I do not necessarily speak for Ofsted. I am basing my evidence on children's views, rather than necessarily Ofsted's position or policies.

  Q5  Chairman: Physically, where are you based? What part of the country?

  Dr Morgan: I am physically based in Ofsted, but I have my own statutory functions to consult and report children's views.

  Q6  Chairman: With Ofsted in London—its London office?

  Dr Morgan: Yes.

  Q7  Chairman: Maxine?

  Maxine Wrigley: Very similar to Roger, we consult with young people, our main difference being that we are service users ourselves—the people who work at A National Voice. That is what makes us a little bit different. Similar to Roger, we have concerns that young people have been a little sceptical about whether things are going to change. Sometimes young people talk about consultation fatigue, in that they have been asked their views many, many times. I know that it has been going on since I was in care, many years ago. There is a little bit of scepticism, and I think that we need to take this chance to prove that some of the changes can happen. Similar to Pam, we believe that some elements from the Green Paper have been watered down. One is around custody, but another is around mental health support. We know that some of the young people from care have mental health issues—they are over-represented in that group—and we would like to see more support. The biggest gap in the Bill, for us, is the independent advocacy role. I have read what Kevin Brennan said about it when he talked to you last week and was questioned by Annette Brooke, and I am not sure that people understand the important role that the independent advocate can play, which is quite distinct from the independent reviewing officer.

  Q8  Chairman: We will be drilling down on a lot of those questions. In a seminar that we had, there seemed to be a feeling that people had gone too far in criticising the quality of care in this country because sometimes the evaluation and comparators are unfair. They might say that there are a certain number of children in care, but only so many GCSEs and so on. Some of the participants in the seminar felt that care had perhaps been evaluated a bit harshly and that it was certainly not as bad as some people seem to paint it. Is care getting a rough deal in that regard, or has it been poor in this country? How does it compare with countries such as France, Germany and the United States? Is it better or worse?

  Maxine Wrigley: There was a programme on Channel 4 quite recently that looked at a residential unit in Germany, a big tower block, where the children were doing better in terms of education than the average for the rest of the population, so young people in care can do well in education if they are given the right support. Our care system is worse than a lot of others, and that is to do with how we view children's rights in this country.

  Dr Morgan: There is a discrepancy in children's experience of how well they are doing in care. When asked to give an overall assessment, nine out of 10 gave a positive score for how they were looked after, but inconsistencies quickly arise. Roughly two thirds told us that they agreed with their care plans, but a quarter said that they had not had an input into their care plans, and just under half said that they did not feel that their care plans were being fully kept to.

  Pam Hibbert: There is an issue particularly around residential care, and the quality does vary. For me, there is an issue about how the staff who work in residential care are trained and what our expectations of them are. Again, there are great contrasts between us and some European countries in the approach to training and the status of staff who work in residential care. There was an interesting piece of research done across three countries, for which staff were asked what they thought the most important thing in their job was. In France and Germany, 80% of the staff said it was to meet the needs of the children they care for. In England, they said it was to follow procedures. That says something very interesting about how we train, support and prepare staff for looking after children.[8]8

  Q9  Chairman: Certainly, I suspect that work force issues will be a big part of our inquiry.

  Martin Narey: I have some sympathy with the feeling of those who work in the care system that they have been over-criticised. In the past, I have had personal experience of that when running prisons. Sometimes when you are doing the best job that you can, you lose sight of the fact that it is still not good enough, and I think that that is the position with the care system. Of course, no one at this table would expect the GCSE results of children in care to be the same as those of the UK population at large, but the truth is that we take an already disadvantaged population and do things to them in the sphere of education that makes success almost impossible, such as moving them frequently from home to home and between schools, but schools are crucial. The gap in educational attainment is absolutely huge. I had a very telling experience in 2006 when we published our report on children in care, which was written by Pam. I spent the best part of a day going around the radio and TV studios with a young woman who was just leaving care and had no GCSEs. I can tell you that if she had had the sort of upbringing that our children got, it is absolutely inconceivable that she would not have been studying at university at that time. In fact, the product of her experience in our corporate parenting was that she did not really believe that she would ever have a place in that world. She was a really bright woman, and that is just a single example of the system letting someone down. I accept entirely that the system is full of people doing their best under difficult circumstances, but some things are patently not good enough.

  Chairman: Right. I am what they call the warm-up act. John, perhaps you would start drilling down and asking more questions.

  Q10  Mr Heppell: We have drifted into the area that I want to get to. You spoke about periodic consultation with children and young people. What have they said? Do they regard being in care as something negative? How do they perceive what is happening and what the care system is supposed to do for them, and has it worked?

  Dr Morgan: I return to the same point about consistency, but I will try to go beyond simply repeating that point. It depends very much on the front-line person who works with a child or young person, on who their social worker is, whether that social worker remains consistent and whether they get on with them. When children leave care, we consulted them about the objective of care, which is that of preparing them adequately to cope independently. There is massive inconsistency in children and there is no middle ground. Children either tell us that they have had a good experience because they had a good leaving-care worker, or that the experience was very poor, because they did not have a good leaving-care worker or they had none at all and they were not given the information that they needed. When we ask children about their key expectations and the one thing that staff need to get right for them in care, the answer is the right placement. About half the children whom we consulted said, "Yes, the placement I'm in is the right one." The other half had reservations and were concerned that the matching of child to placement had not worked, that there was only one choice and not enough alternatives, and that there was no back-up system if it began not to work out.

  Pam Hibbert: Again, I do not see as many children and young people as Roger, but we try to consult them when we can. For some of them, coming into care is not a negative experience. I have certainly heard young people say that they felt safe for the first time in a long while when they came into care. The actual coming into care is not necessarily a negative experience, but some of the things that then happen are. Young people consistently tell us that of course the big things matter, such as being involved in their reviews and care planning. However, it is some of the very small things that can really make a difference and for me, the issue is about how to make front-line workers and local authorities responsible for those things. I will give a couple of examples. One young man said, "The one thing that I was really good at was sport, but no one ever came to my school sports day to cheer me on." Another example is a 19-year-old young woman who had been in care virtually since birth who said, "When I talk about my history they show me my file. I don't want to see my file, I want to see photographs of when I was four." She did not have that, and it is those small things that would make a difference that we are not very good at doing.

  Q11  Chairman: I want to call Martin, but I remind the Committee that Martin is here for a restricted period. If there are questions that you particularly want to favour Martin with, concentrate on him for the first hour, and then we will focus our attention on the other witnesses. I remind the Committee that they can bop from question to question if they want to pull Martin in.

  Martin Narey: With regard to the children in care whom I have met: we published a report in 2006 that we did not present as a statistical survey, but we spoke to 52 children in our work. I was struck that, objectively, in their responses, the descriptions of care were frequently positive. However, what they often talked about was the assumptions made by others about their experience. They said that at school, they recognised that some teachers supposed that they were not interested in school work, that they were, by necessity, not academically able, that they were trouble makers and even that they were unlikely to tell the truth. Young people's feelings about the conclusions that others make about being in care are sometimes more important than their objective experiences, which are sometimes quite positive.

  Maxine Wrigley: I would like to reinforce that point. We have done various polls and the public attitude towards young people in care is getting better. In the past, people assumed that they were youth offenders or that their behaviour had led to their going into care, which we know is absolutely not true in the majority of cases. Sometimes it is young people's perception of the public's perception—if you see what I mean—that in itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Last night, I was reading in some research that Roger did a while back that a quarter of young people felt that they were viewed negatively.

  Q12  Chairman: How do young people in care like to be called—"looked-after children"? What is the politically correct term?

  Maxine Wrigley: It is about to change again.

  Q13  Chairman: What do young people like to be called?

  Maxine Wrigley: It was always children in care, young people in care, and care leavers; about 10 years ago it changed to looked-after children and care leavers and I think it is kind of on the precipice of changing back.

  Dr Morgan: I am not sure that children are actually that fussed about the politically correct term. "In care" tends to be what children are using with me, and they understand and respond to "looked-after children", but the critical issue for children is who knows that they are in care or that they have come from care and what do they do with it? Children are equivocal on that. Some have had the experience that when a teacher or their peers know that they are from care, they actually get some extra support. Others have said that it alienated them and that they were put into a special category to which all sorts of stereotypes applied. Quite a high proportion of children try to keep the fact secret from their peers at school that they are in care. Quite a proportion of children have told us that being fostered, being from a children's home or even having been adopted is one of those things that singles them out as being sufficiently different to be the focus of bullying. The important issue is what people do with that information and the need to keep the fact that you are from care on a need-to-know basis and to have correct assumptions for those who need to know, rather than stereotypical ones.

  Q14  Mr Heppell: Have you had any feedback about Care Matters? Have children commented on it, what do they say are the good things in it and are there any omissions that should be pointed out?

  Dr Morgan: Yes, we have specifically consulted children on Care Matters. Overall, a number of issues in Care Matters came from children or were endorsed by children. To exemplify, it underlines an issue that Maxine and I have been negotiating about and advocating on for many years—clarifying that children in care can go on overnight stays, like other children can. There is also the focus, which has already been mentioned, on the ability to leave care more gradually, at a time of choice up to the age of 18, rather than necessarily, as was many children's experience, much earlier than that. There are one or two omissions. There are one or two issues that children would like to see stronger emphasis on, which I will quickly summarise: the principle of trying to provide as normal a family-type experience as possible for children in care—exemplified by the overnight stay—and the issue of what you do, as I was indicating earlier, if you disagree with your care authority about what it is doing or you do not feel that it is fulfilling your care plan. What happens with the independent reviewing officer is critical, as is where else you might go if they do not pursue the issue. Information for children is important. One final point is that children say that there are some assumptions in Care Matters, one of which is that changing school is a bad thing. Well, we have asked children who had changed school recently about that experience. Half of them—in a sense, it is not surprising that it was half—thought that the change of school was actually a good thing for them, either socially or educationally. It boils down to trying to avoid making some of those global assumptions and going back to individualisation of decision-making in care.

  Q15  Chairman: Martin, do you want to come in on that?

  Martin Narey: I do not disagree with Roger's point about a change of schools being sometimes positive. The problem with the children whom we surveyed in 2006 was the proportion of them who had had numerous school moves. On average, the 52 children we worked with had attended five schools. More than half of them had attended more than six schools, and about 15% of the group had attended 10 different schools. It is the regularity of change that is worrying.

  Pam Hibbert: We also consulted children and young people in our response to the Green Paper, Care Matters, and some of the issues that Roger mentioned came up from the children that we consulted.[9]9 There was real approval for the suggestion that they should go to the best schools and that they should have the best opportunity, but there was some concern that if that were not supported correctly we would be setting them up to fail. If the school was taking them reluctantly, if there was no package of support and they did not have the right equipment, uniform, etc., the plan would fail. The other big one that came up, from I think something in the region of 70% of them—I will have to look through my paperwork, sorry—was access to somebody, other than their immediate carers, to talk to, at any time, not just Monday to Friday 9-to-5. There was a real feeling that sometimes when young people were in crisis and that crisis involved their foster carers or their residential unit, there was no one else to go to, sometimes even in working hours but certainly not out of working hours—access to their social worker, or someone to speak to, to help them to work through some of the things that were immediate for them.

  Chairman: I will come back to you, but Fiona wants to come in quickly.

  Q16  Fiona Mactaggart: I want to ask a particular question about that. Are there any models that involve mentors who provide the kind of stability that we have read about in the background papers provided by Maxine's organisation, Roger's organisation and so on? Are there any models of such provision, where someone who is not just a social worker is available 24/7 and does not change every other year?

  Maxine Wrigley: I know that in Stockport there is an online service—it is not just for young people in care—which boys particularly have made use of. Often, boys do not want to ask for help, or they would like to have it anonymously. It is an online service, which obviously means that young people need to have access to computers. It is a sort of online support counselling service. It has won awards, it has been working really well, and young people also like the idea that it is not just for young people in care and so is not in itself stereotyping. The other witnesses may know better, but I am not sure that there are many examples around England where there is 24/7 access to support, which was No. 2 in young people's favourites of all the pledges that were talked about. It was very important, and we were disappointed that it did not make it through to the White Paper from the Green Paper.

  Dr Morgan: In my experience, children are not necessarily asking for different models; they are asking for consistency of and access to the same model. There is an important difference there. They say, "If we could have 24/7 access to our social worker, if they were prepared to give us their mobile phone number and actually answer, if when we left messages they did get through, and if social workers would phone us back quickly and be able to see their promises through". I do not have a proposed solution to the turnover of social workers, but children are very conscious of the deleterious effect of that on their care, consistency of care, and access to that sort of support. Just one further point on that, when children are asked to whom they would turn when needing advice and support, very large numbers will turn to friends and peers. Many—for example, those placed for adoption or fostered—expressed very different views about whether it is a good idea to set up groups or support arrangements for those in similar situations. The consistent message from children is not that they all want that, but that they would all like the opportunity of it being available, if they wished to have it.

  Maxine Wrigley: I would just like to say that in one of our services—not for children in care but for children leaving care—we operate a 24-hour assistance model. It is very good and productive and not hugely expensive, which, of course, matters.

  Q17  Mr Heppell: You touched on this before, when you said that children should not feel that they get stereotyped one way or the other. Do children feel that, when the state is their parent, the state has the right sort of expectations and ambitions for them, in the same way as a normal parent? Or do they think that nobody cares?

  Maxine Wrigley: I think that it varies across England. However, I know for a fact that some young people feel that there is an expectation that they will not do well and that they will end up as one of the traditional statistics in the care system. A quarter of young people said that they had never heard the phrase "corporate parent", and the ones who had heard it were not keen on it. The state as parent is a very difficult concept for people to get their heads round. Who is the state? Who is the parent? It is only recently in the Green and White Papers and the new Bill that it has been made clear. Children whom we have spoken to now realise that the elected member and the director of children's services are ultimately accountable for their care. We are beginning to get some transparency, which we welcome.

  Dr Morgan: Generally speaking, children in care do not feel that there is an entity that they can relate to called a corporate parent. It is a theoretical construct and a statutory body. I remember a child saying, "Who is my corporate parent? Is it my social worker? Is it the director of children's services? If I want to have a row with my parent about letting me do something, who do I have it with?" A further important element is that on asking such children where they believe the sorts of decisions that parents make about their children's futures are made for them, very few know. Some give a worrying account of how their social worker wishes for a particular line of action and agrees it with them, but elsewhere in the system, as they see it, somebody else has the final say, whether it be a committee dealing with the financial situation or an assistant director in a social care department who manages the budget but who has never met them. The issue of who children should go to if they want to have an argument is very important. It goes back to the issue of how someone can challenge the local authority, if they feel that it is not making the right decisions for them. That is a particular issue, if the social worker has supported the starting point.

  Martin Narey: Low expectations is a crucial area. I will read a recent quotation from a pupil with whom we work: "I didn't think my GCSE results were very good, but my teacher said she thought they were okay, considering my background." That is the issue in a nutshell; children perceive that not much is expected of them. Very frequently, they will fulfil those non-expectations.

  Chairman: You are looking quizzical, Douglas.

  Q18  Mr Carswell: I have one very quick question for Dr. Morgan or the other witnesses. We talked about how the state is perhaps not the best parent and that looked-after children perhaps have low expectations from the outset, because the state is not doing a very good job. This question may tell you about my ignorance, but surely there are more people wanting to foster, care for, adopt or look after children than there are children available to be looked after. Is that the case? In Essex, I know a number of would-be foster carers who have been denied the ability to look after people. Are we not giving the state responsibility to do something and do it badly, while not letting civic society and real parents provide a warm and loving environment, which they could do much better than the state?

  Dr Morgan: I will come back to the children's experience on that point. They are not telling me that their experience has been that they have had a choice of more than one foster carer who is suitable for their particular placement. That matching issue is critical at the time of decision making. They also very often report that it can take quite a long time to become fostered, not because of legitimate processes such as a gradual introduction to a new place to live, the sharing of information and preliminary visits, but because it takes a long time to find their foster carers. There is certainly a great deal of variation in the availability of foster carers across the country. Talking to children in some inner city-areas, for example, the situation is far tighter and the supply—if I may use that term—is far lower than in other areas of the country.

  Pam Hibbert: There are issues around fostering. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering estimates that we have a shortfall of about 8,000 in foster carers. There are issues about which foster carers would like to foster which children and matching them, which sometimes causes some of the problems. Even if we had enough foster carers, the decisions that Roger was talking about around finance, budgets, placements and planning will still be made by the local authority, not the foster carer. Now there are some issues about whether foster carers should be given more autonomy over some of those decisions and there are arguments for that happening in some cases, but I would suggest that recruiting more foster carers alone will not solve some of the issues about corporate parenting.

   Chairman: We are going to come back to foster carers. Hold your horses for a moment, Douglas.

  Q19  Mr Heppell: In Care Matters there is a lot of emphasis on positive activities. Presumably, children find a deficiency in what is available in terms of positive activities. Do they think that the things in Care Matters will make a significant difference?

  Dr Morgan: Having been asked that direct question on the basis of Care Matters, the children have said, "That looks good, but what will the delivery be like?" There are two points. First, the need for a range of suitable activities and for more activities for young people comes up again and again in consultations with young people about what they would like and what they regard as helping them to maintain and develop social contacts and friendship groups, keep them out of trouble and all those other sorts of effects. Secondly, just as schooling is disrupted by changes of care placement, so are hobbies and activities in terms of both the groups you are with and what is available. There is a difference between there being activities available in the local area and having the encouragement, financial support, time input and consistency to develop your own personal hobbies, and those surviving over a number of placement changes. It is easier if your hobby happens to be something that most communities provide for. It is less easy if it is something that you are passionate about but is actually quite idiosyncratic and you have some support for in one place, but not necessarily in another.

   Chairman: We are going to move on and David is going to look at another aspect.

8   See Ev 25 Back

9   See Ev 26 Back

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