Education and Adoption Bill

Written evidence submitted by Adoption UK (EAB 17)

Introduction

1. Adoption UK is the leading charity providing support, awareness and understanding for those parenting or supporting children who cannot live with their birth parents.

2. Over 1 0 ,000 members provide a strong, supportive community and the largest voice of adopters in the UK.

Summary of our written evidence

3. We support the Government’s intent, following on from the progress made by the Coalition Government, to ensure that children for whom adoption is the right route to permanence are not subject to avoidable delay, are found the best possible match with an adoptive family and have their needs fully indentified and met. Adoption transforms children’s lives and brings joy to their families.

4. We agree with the Government’s analysis of the problems still besetting the adoption system in England. We in the main support the direction of travel in the Regionalising Adoption paper but we believe the Bill is reductive and fails to take the opportunity to address issues that are of primary importance to adoptive families – being heard – getting timely support – ensuring their child has a good experience of education and does well.

5. We accept that the Government supports these principles but we are disappointed that the Bill only focuses on structure and allows limited or no opportunity for amendment to address more fundamental concerns of adoptive families. In our recent survey of our members the priorities for change were clear. They may be achieved through sector consolidation but the Bill fails to demonstrate how legislation will achieve greater certainty of positive change.

The challenges the Government are trying to address

6. We consider that the Government has identified four key challenges in the adoption system, which if resolved, would lead to the likelihood that children for whom adoption is the right pathway to permanence will be placed without unnecessary delay, their social workers will have a wide choice of suitable placements and their families will benefit from a wide range of support for their children and themselves.

7. Our overriding interest is to see the quality of the adoption system improve to meet the needs of adoptive families. We support a consolidation of the adoption system only if it improves the quality, sufficiency and accessibility to good timely matching and the advice and support that adopted children and their families need.

8. We believe that the previous Government introduced a number of measures that go some way to improving this – less avoidable delay, better understanding of performance at local, regional and national levels, more support to adopted children and their families through the pupil premium and the Adoption Support Fund and a range of other measures. We support the overall policy direction that continues with the current government but continue to have concerns about the quality of implementation at local levels and the risk that investment is either not used well or is replacing savings made at a local level.

9. The paper "Regionalising adoption" sets out the Government’s approach to stimulating reform of the adoption "market". The paper sets out the issues to be addressed through regionalisation, either locally led or enforced by the proposed powers in Section 13 of the Bill. These issues are:

10. Inefficiencies – we agree that efficiencies could be found. We have long believed that adoption is not an issue that can be managed solely within a local authority. This has been acknowledged for some while through legislation, e.g. the development of the Adoption Register, policy e.g. the interagency fee, and in practice, e.g. through regional adoption consortia and the placement of children with voluntary adoption agencies.

11. It is the case that i n the best interests of children many are best placed outside of their home local authority to remove the risk from bi rth parents or to find the right family to meet an individual child’s needs. Farmer and Dance (2010) indentified the risk of lo c al authorities narrowing the range of placements for consideration.

12. The government has accurately identified that there are c180 adoption agencies in England, placing at a recent highpoint only 5,050 children in one year. L ocal authorities vary in the scale of their adoption activity and have varying degrees of ability to recruit families due to demographic issues. On the face of it this does not seem to be a good use of public money as each agency carries the cost of a separate infrastructure as required by Ofsted and other practice and managerial requirements.

13. We also know that the cost of recruiting and approving an adoptive placement varies significantly as does the quality. There is no evidence that there is a relationship between quality and cost. We do know that overall the quality of the voluntary adoption agencies, as assessed by Ofsted, is better than local authority agencies though this ge neralisation risks disguising the excellent performance of a number of local authority agencies e.g. Hampshire.

14. Our experience as a member of the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies (CVAA) and the experience of our Chief Executive, who when a Director at Action for Children led the Adoption Agency there, is that voluntary adoption agencies (VAAs), whilst in some cases being small in size, have the track record and ability to find and support families who take "hard to place" children that local authorities can find it hard to recruit. Some of these agencies are specialist and may only place a small number of children a year but they find families for children who would otherwise stay in care indefinitely. The previous and current government have recognised the value of this sector through funding expansion and capacity building grants.

15. We would be concerned if efficiency was solely seen through the prism of scale. Value for money must be achieved however and we believe that consolidation, particularly if locally led and consensual, will improve the system as long as we do not lose specialism, recognise that there is no direct relationship between size and cost and be absolutely clear that the measure of success of any change will be measured by improvements in quality, more placement options for children and less avoidable delay.

16. Matching – we agree that some children wait too long and we are alarmed at the rising trend in reversal decisions – where children have a plan for adoption that changes at a later date. There were 1,450 reversal decisions last year. In at least half the cases the reason for this is that a family cannot be found.

17. The Government cites that as at September 2014 3,470 children were waiting for a placement. The recently published Adoption Leadership Board figures show this figure has reduced to 2,960 by the end of December 2014. We are concerned as to whether these are accurate figure s. All other evidence – the low use of matching service s and that there are less than 6 00 children on the adoption register suggests that the number of children waiting is much lower. Of the reported 2,960 we think that many are technically waiting but will be subject to reversal decisions at some stage. Either way the difficulty we still have in finding families for too many children argues the case for an improved approach to matching.

18. We do question though why the numbers on the adoption register are at such great variance with the reported number of children waiting. The register is one of the previous initiatives to improve matching. If local authorities are ignoring the requirement to place children on the register what does this tell us about other planned reforms to improve the sharing of information about children and adopters waiting? Similarly before embarking on structural change it would b e valuable to understand whether or not the equalisation of the interagency fee has improved matching across local authority or consortia boundaries. The recent pre-budget announcement of the £30m allocated by Government to cover the fee seems to suggest that it has not. We must ensure that further changes at national or regional level are informed by the best evidence available to us. This has been the strength of the adoption reform programme to date.

19. Recruitment - We know there are numerically enough new adopters waiting for children to meet the level of placement demand but we also know that there is a mismatch between the profile of these children and the adopters’ preferences. The challenge is finding families for the "the hard to place" children. Recruiting from a wider base does occur through consortia and matching services, whether it happens enough is a moot point – probably not in our view.

20. We believe that the development of a regional approach to adoption must be combined with a strategic approach to adopter recruitment that is led by a full analysis of the profile of children in the adoption "pipeline". We have seen remarkable improvements in the recruitment of new adopters over the past couple of years but we have the current mismatch referred to above and evidence of a significant drop in the number of new adopters coming into the system as agencies appear to be closing the doors in the context of the significant fall in the number of ADM and Placement Order decisions post Re B-S. Were this tend to reverse in the short to medium term , as it may with the injection of the aforementioned £30m, we may find ourselves back where we started pre reforms with an adopter shortfall. A key test of any approach to consolidation of the recruitment end of the adoption process must be its ability to flex with trends in the numbers of children coming through the system and its ability to recruit families who can meet the needs of specific children.

21. Adoption support – we have provided the previous government with sufficient evidence on the lack of access to the right support provided in a timely way to influence the development and implementation of the Adoption Support Fund and the Pupil Premium. The evidence of our members’ experiences also informed the work leading up to the publication of the Future Minds report where the needs of adopted children were recognised and understood. Julie Selwyn’s research – "Beyond the Adoption Order" – clearly identified the extent of the unmet need. We have contributed to thinking and proposals for a regional or sub-regional approach to adoption support. Our thinking is informed by the success of other initiatives that have brought together the voice of parents, multi-disciplinary expertise co-located, new and fully accessible services. Many adopters support this approach. The benefit would be to bring specialist multi-disciplinary and cross sector expertise together. Current local provision is too patchy and the number of adopted children does not justify 152 local adoption support service arrangements. This approach would we believe best release the potential of the Adoption Support Fund.

Issues

22. There are a number of issues that we believe need to be addressed in any locally led or nationally directed developments. We would like to see evidence of a commitment to address these issues in amendments to the Bill or in the supporting regulations.

23. First the paper "Regionalising adoption" makes limited reference to the voice of adopted children and their parents in the development of regional arrangements. The biggest and most often stated view of adopters is that they are not listened to. They had begun to believe that they were – we fear that they will not be consulted and involved in decisions about new arrangements unless there is a clear requirement upon agencies to do this.

24. Second consolidation does not automatically lead to service improvement. We know the cost of structural change both financially but also in the experience of the end user of services. Given the already inconsistent approach to adoption support across the country and the growing anecdotal evidence that access to the resources of the Adoption Support Fund is being hindered by local authorities it is, in our view, even more important that a better "guarantee" of timely support is available to adopted children and their families in a time of structural upheaval. We note the Minister’s comments in the Committee discussion on 2 July but agree with the Opposition that the Adoption Support Fund and a duty to provide are not mutually exclusive. Each would strengthen and reinforce the other.

25. Third governance is an issue that requires clarification. The regionalisation agenda in Wales was delivered in the context of a national adoption service being established. This issue is potentially one that has stood in the way of consolidation to date and may inhibit ground up developments. Adopters experiencing problems currently find it very hard to get resolution to their concerns. This is within the context of very clear lines of accountability in individual local authorities. We are concerned that this may worsen unless there is clarity about local accountability. There are different models open to consideration, an absolute necessity is the formal involvement of the voice of the end users in the vision, design and governance of any new arrangements.

26. Adoptive parents understand the system, their children’s needs and the varying quality of provision. They are the nation’s greatest unpaid human asset, parenting children failed by others, many of whom are deeply disturbed by their early life experiences. Many adopters deal with the legacy of their child’s severe maltreatment for their whole lives without respite. They rightly expect a strong say in the support they receive; to fail to engage that would be ultimately undermining of the improvements that are desired by Government. This may not be subject to an amendment but does need to be formalised in the arrangements for the development of regional agencies. Adoption UK is well placed and willing to advise on this matter.

27. Fourth we are concerned that the voluntary adoption sector is sidelined in the developments. The "Regionalising adoption" paper highlights good examples of the sector being involved in innovation. The sector is concerned that the move to regionalisation will marginalise the sector. This was the experience in Wales. The sector has about 20% share of the adopter recruitment market, has a track record of finding families for harder to place children and overall gains better Ofsted inspection ratings. The sector already deals with a deeply entrenched approach to sequential matching and may often be third choice, only considered where a local match or a match with local authority consortia partners cannot be found. This approach and the difficulty some agencies have in parts of the country to fully engage with consortia, risks voluntary agencies not being full partners to regional developments. This would be a missed opportunity and

Missed opportunities

28. There are two main missed opportunities that require legislative change. The Bill focuses solely on powers to change who provides adoption services. Adoption UK would like to see amendments on two issues of significant concern to adopters:

Education

29. Adopted children are significantly behind other children at KS2. They are only marginally ahead of looked after children. Many schools and teachers are not equipped with the understanding or skills to effectively manage and teach children who have experienced significant early childhood trauma and maltreatment. 70% of children adopted from care have experienced this.

30. Priority school admissions and the pupil premium were welcome introductions but our research shows that over 40% or adoptive parents cannot ascertain from their school how the pupil premium is being used. We want to see the powers of the Virtual Head extended to include children adopted from care as well as LAC. This would include the transfer of the pupil premium from the school to the Virtual Head and a requirement for a Pupil Education Plan to be in place for every adopted child (subject to the agreement of the parent[s]).

Entitlement to support

31. For a decade there has been an entitlement for adopters to receive an assessment of their child’s support needs if requested. The duty to provide this is now covered by a duty to promote this entitlement following the legislation last year. There is no duty to provide the support that the assessment indentifies is required. This duty, if in place, should cover the range of needs including those that would fall under the remit of CAMHS.

32. The Coalition Government was pushed on this by ourselves and the House of Lords Select Committee on Adoption but were not inclined to legislate. The Coalition introduced the Adoption Support Fund as an alternative response. Whilst this is welcome it is not sufficient and we are already seeing local authorities limiting adopter access to the Fund. Once the costs of the Fund are met or partially met by local authorities after this year we believe that access to the Fund may become more restricted further strengthening the case for a duty to provide.

July 2015

Prepared 7th July 2015