1 Meeting objectives |
1. On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and
Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Education
(the Department) and Ofsted about services for children in foster
and residential care in England.
We also took evidence from the Association of Directors of Children's
Services, Barnardo's and the Care Leavers Association. On 31 March
2013, 68,110 children were in care, of whom 75% were fostered
and 9% were in residential care.
2. The Department sets policy for children in care
and its objectives are to improve the quality of care and stability
of placements. With a staff of 70, the Department works with other
organisations to meet these objectives. Local authorities in England
have a statutory duty to provide care for children who need to
be protected from further harm. Their social workers judge when
to take children into care, assess their needs and the type of
placement required. 
Ofsted regulates and inspects care services provided by both local
authorities and private and voluntary sector organisations.
The Department can intervene if local authorities do not deliver
services to an acceptable standard.
3. Local authorities look after children in their
own foster and residential homes, or pay private or voluntary
organisations to do so.
In recent years, local authorities have protected spending on
foster and residential care, despite wider cuts to council spending.
Local authorities spent £2.5 billion in 2012-13 on foster
and residential care, an increase of 3% in real terms since 2010-11
despite an overall fall in spending, while the number of children
in care rose by 4% over the same period.
But the Association of Directors of Children's Services warned
that local authorities were now at the point when they would no
longer be able to commit to prioritising children's services.
4. The Association of Directors of Children's Services
told us that local authorities were clearly responsible for the
delivery and quality of foster and residential care services.
But The Care Leavers' Association was concerned that the quality
of care varied by authority and it considered that this was an
issue the Department was reluctant to address.
Ofsted also told us that around 55% of local authorities' children's
services that it had inspected required improvement, and that
no councils had been rated as outstanding.
Given the Department has national oversight, and it is the only
body that collects data on the care of all children in care, the
Association of Directors of Children's Services and Barnardo's
suggested that the Department was best placed to carry out a number
of functions. These included providing advice and guidance, identifying
common themes and developments relating to particular groups of
children or types of need, sharing innovation and identifying
better ways of delivering services.
5. We challenged the Department on its roles and
responsibilities for children in care, particularly those referred
to in its Accountability System Statement dated September 2012.
The Department accepted that its role was to set out statutory
duties for local authorities; and to intervene where authorities
fail. However, only
following strong challenge from the Committee did the Department
accept that it was the best placed nationally to analyse and collect
data to help authorities improve. It also reluctantly accepted
that it had a role to play in setting out the expectations for
service performance; and taking an overview on the way that services
are provided and how the market functions.
6. At the time of our evidence session on 12 January
2015, the Department's current Accountability System Statement
was that published in September 2012. It stated that the Department
"has a responsibility for holding local authorities to account
for their performance in delivering children's services".
In evidence the Department did not agree this was its role, however,
and told us that local authorities were instead accountable to
their own councillors and electorates for their performance, although
we consider these accountabilities can co-exist.
On 20 January 2015 the Department published a revised Accountability
System Statement which included changes to its roles and responsibilities
for children in care. In particular the Department removed any
reference to it holding local authorities to account for their
performance, and significantly downplayed its role in leading
the sector to improve.
7. The Department had not told us on 12 January that
it intended to revise its Accountability Statement, it did not
provide us with a draft in advance of publication, and it did
not tell us that it had published a revised statement on 20 January.
We took the opportunity to challenge the Department at a separate
evidence session on 26 January, when it told us that it did not
normally consult with Parliament on its accountability statements.
However, in Managing Public Money, HM Treasury refers to
the Department for Communities and Local Government's publication
Adapting to decentralisation. This makes it clear that
"Where major changes are being proposed Parliament is likely
to want an explanation of how the accountability systems will
work and a draft statement may fulfil that role".
As we had discussed the Department's accountability system with
them only a few days earlier, and clearly had concerns that the
Department was not adequately holding local authorities to account
for their performance, our interest in any revised statement should
have been clear to the Department. The Department then wrote to
us and explained that it had not shared its revised statement
with us as it judged that "the updated version did not contain
major changes". It did not therefore believe that Parliament
would want a full explanation of changes. We are puzzled by this
judgement, given that the revised statement removed reference
to the Department holding local authorities to account for performance;
a matter clearly of current concern to us. The Department did,
however, invite us to comment on the updated statement, and said
it would carefully consider our comments for its next version.
8. In recent years there has been little improvement
in placement stability for children in foster and residential
care and how well they are looked after. We were concerned that,
in 2012-13, 34% of children in care had more than 1 placement
during the year and 11%, or 7,000 children, had been in more than
3 placements. These proportions have not improved since 2009 and
the Department agreed that this was a "very stubborn"
indicator that had not changed in the last few years.
Similarly, there has been no improvement in the proportion of
children being placed close to home. Since 2009 the proportion
being placed more than 20 miles from home has remained at 14%
for children in foster care and over 30% for children in residential
9. Social workers make the key decisions about placing
children in care, and Barnardo's commented that there were few
other occasions in a child's life that were more significant and
important than reception into care. The chance of a child receiving
a good diagnosis of his or her needs and finding an appropriate
and good quality placement are a product of high-quality social
work. The Department
told us that its biggest single objective was to improve the quality
of social work, and the Association of Directors of Children's
Services pointed to shortcomings in the preparation of new entrants
to social work. The Department told us that it was seeking to
improve the quality of social work and it has appointed a Chief
Social Worker to drive practice among the existing work force,
and creating an elite entry scheme for highly talented graduates
to the profession.
10. The cost of foster care can range from £15,000
to £57,000 for councils' own foster care provision; and from
£18,000 to £73,000 for other providers' foster care.
The Department acknowledged that there was a lack of understanding
on what influences the cost of care and more work needed to be
done. It told us that it had been unable to find a
correlation between what a local authority spent on foster or
residential care, and the quality of the service offered by the
local authority as assessed by Ofsted. We were concerned that
the wide variation in costs of foster care may conceal large variations
in care quality. Such variation in spending is unsatisfactory
if it does not represent different standards of care. The Department
said that, as it did not provide the money spent on foster and
residential care, it did not take a specific view on what the
cost of care should be.
11. Barnardo's told us that local authorities' placement
decisions may be driven by cost rather than the individual needs
of the child. It told us that instead of prioritising finding
the most appropriate placement for the child from the full range
of services available, local authorities choose to place children
in their own residential or foster care because they think it
is cheaper than those offered by other providers. However, we
were concerned that price should not be considered over a child's
needs and, given the wide range of cost estimates, it is not clear
that local authority care is always cheaper.
12. The Care Leavers' Association reported that local
authorities and individual social workers do not always know where
the best placements are locally, or where the specialist placements
are available further afield. Finding placements close to home
is complicated by the geographical mismatch between the supply
of and demand for places, particularly for residential care. For
example, many children's homes are located in the North West and
the West Midlands, which poses a problem for authorities in the
south. The Association
of Directors of Children's Services told us that local authorities
look to the Department to encourage new providers to come into
the market where appropriate and the Department accepts that it
has a role to play here. It said that in recent years it had published
data on the residential care market for local authorities to use.
1 C&AG's Report, Children in Care, Session 2014-15, HC 787, 27 November 2014 Back
C&AG's Report, Children in Care, paras 1.5, 1.27 Back
Q 71, 81, 93; C&AG's Report, Children in Care, paras 3, 1.4, 1.14 Back
Q 75; C&AG's Report, Children in Care, para 1.4, 2.33 Back
Q 78 80-81; C&AG's Report, Children in Care, paras 2.37-2.38 Back
C&AG's Report, Children in Care, para 3 Back
C&AG's Report, Children in Care, para 3.3 Back
Q 29 Back
Q 176 Back
Qq 2, 4, 7-9 Back
Qq 69, 81 Back
Qq 70, 82-85 Back
Q 79-81; Department for Education, Accountability System Statement for Education and Children's Services, September 2012, para 114 Back
Qq 70, 88; Department for Education, Accountability System Statement for Education and Children's Services, January 2015 Back
Committee of Public Accounts, Oral evidence: Recall on EFA and DfE financial statements/Durand Academy investigation Monday 26 January 2015, HC 924, Qq 222-228 Back
Managing public money, HM Treasury, July 2013; Accountability: adapting to decentralisation, Department for Local Communities and Local Government, September 2011 Back
Written evidence submitted for the Committee's inquiry on Education Funding Agency and Department for Education financial statements - recall from the Department for Education, 19 February 2015 Back
Q 197; C&AG's Report, para 2.18 Back
C&AG's Report, para 2.22 Back
Qq 17, 158, 197 Back
Qq 25, 140-141 Back
Qq 129-130; C&AG's Report, paras 3.13, 3.15, 3.17 Back
Qq 17, 27, 46; C&AG's Report, paras 12, 3.14 Back
Qq 14, 18; C&AG's Report, para 2.25 and Figure 11 Back
Qq 15, 84, 135 Back