1. Central accountability and responsibility for improving the care leaver system is not clear. The care leaver system is more than the local provision of support services. It also encompasses the setting of standards, Ofsted inspections, compliance with statutory guidance and local authorities’ own overview and scrutiny arrangements. But Ofsted has reported that 64% of care leaver services inspected are inadequate or require improvement. The current system is therefore clearly not serving care leavers well but the Department is unclear where the fault for the variability in services lies. Given the national standards and inspection framework and local delivery of services, national and local government share responsibility for improving the support offered to care leavers. The Department for Education has the ministerial lead on care leavers but we were surprised it did not take a stronger leadership role in improving the system against the background of such disappointing service provision.
Recommendation: Recognising the ministerial lead for care leavers is in the Department for Education, we recommend the Department takes a formal responsibility for improving the quality of support for care leavers.
2. The Care Leavers Strategy was a positive step and has achieved some success but there is still more to do. Eight central government departments worked together on the Strategy and made commitments to improve their services. The Strategy was the first time government departments had worked together to address some of the unintended consequences of policies that were not joined up. The strategy has made some progress, for example in data collection and monitoring of care leavers by the Department for Work & Pensions, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education. But there is no single person or Department in charge of leading improvement and ensuring that government works in an integrated way, and the Department accepts that there is still more to do. In addition since the strategy was launched, witnesses told us local authorities have seen a more diverse group of young people leaving care, including many with complex needs, who require additional joined-up action from central government.
Recommendation: The Department should look again at the Care Leaver Strategy, setting out clearly the Government’s objectives for care leavers, and how and when it will make improvements to the support they receive.
3. There is scope to provide more support to help get care leavers into work. In 2013–14, 41% of 19-year-olds care leavers were not in education, employment or training (NEET) compared with 15% for all 19-year-olds. This is the highest proportion since 2001–02. Only 6% of care leavers were in higher education compared with one-third of all 19-year-olds. Barnardo’s has called on the Government to reserve 20,000 apprenticeships for 16- to 18-year-olds from the care system. The Department considers many care leavers may not yet be job ready, and so a traineeship to help them prepare for an apprenticeship may be a more suitable first step.
4. Too many care leavers are in unsuitable accommodation. We recognise the challenges faced by local authorities in providing a full range of accommodation for care leavers to meet their needs; from emergency placements, through to lodgings and semi-independent and independent housing. The Department told us that there would be new guidance to local authorities about how to develop housing choices for care leavers, and that accommodation would be a key area that government would be looking at in the future.
The Department should urgently consider what more it can do to help local authorities provide suitable accommodation, and keep the issue under constant review.
The Department has recognised the potential role of social impact bonds in providing new approaches to supporting care leavers. In its response to this report we would therefore like the Department to set out its position on how it might use social impact bonds to incentivise and reward innovation, and so improve outcomes for care leavers — with a particular view to employment and accommodation.
5. There are gaps in the data on care leavers’ outcomes and experiences. There are no official statistics on some aspects of care leavers’ lives, such as the extent to which they are unemployed or homeless. The Department for Education accepts that government data in this area could be improved. It plans to match national pupil data (which flags children in care) with other information from the Department for Work & Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and & Customs; so that it will have better information to monitor the destinations of children after leaving care, and therefore to understand what is working.
Recommendation: The Department should set out a timetable for improving the data it collects on care leavers’ circumstances and how it will ensure that central government and local authorities make effective use of the data to improve outcomes.
6. The variability in the quality and cost of services is unacceptable. The new focus on care leaver services as part of Ofsted’s inspection of local authorities’ children’s services is an important and welcome development. The inspections have shone a spotlight on good and poor practice among the local authorities so far inspected. However, overall Ofsted has found that 64% of care leaver services are inadequate or require improvement. Such a high proportion shows that there is systemic rather than occasional, local failure. Yet the Department for Education told us that it only formally intervenes when Ofsted judges a local authority’s children’s services as a whole to be inadequate. The reported spending on supporting care leavers varies hugely, even between neighbouring local authorities, and there is no correlation between spend and quality of care leaver services. Although there are concerns about the accuracy, completeness and comparability of this cost data, the Department and local authorities have no other or better information to support the benchmarking assessments vital to improve value for money.
Recommendation: The Department should:
7. The quality of support care leavers receive from personal advisers is too patchy. The role of personal advisers is fundamental to ensuring that care leavers get support that is comparable to what their peers would receive from a ‘reasonable parent’. But unless personal advisers have the skills, knowledge and capacity to act effectively they will not be the support that care leavers need. Care leavers told us of some good experiences, but also that the quality and availability of support they got from different personal advisers was patchy; for example, they highlighted having many different personal advisers in a short time, or advisers that struggled with high caseloads. Ofsted has reported that lack of personal support was a problem for care leavers at many of the local authorities it has inspected. In 2013–14, overall, local authorities were not in touch with 17% of 19 to 21-year-old care leavers, and only eight out of 151 local authorities managed to keep in touch with all of their care leavers.
Recommendation: The Department should extend the remit of its programme to reform social work education and training to include the role and responsibilities of all personal advisers.
8. Good practice on how best to support care leavers is emerging but is not systematically identified and shared nationally. In the past there has been a lack of good practice examples but the Department believes that, since Ofsted began reporting on care leaver services, it has a clearer idea of what constitutes good and poor practice. We heard examples of some good practice being identified, for example, through Ofsted’s ‘Getting to Good’ courses and the Ministry of Justice’s good practice forum. There are also examples of local sharing of good practice, such as the National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum, whose members’ Ofsted ratings are on average better than for non-members – yet only half of local authorities are members. For care leavers, the New Belongings programme shows promise and the Department for Education has itself seen the benefits of a national body with the Education Employment Foundation’s work on what works best for disadvantaged pupils in schools. There is however, no national centre for researching and disseminating good practice on what works best.
Recommendation: The Department should take the lead in developing and sharing good practice, and be proactive in helping to bring the worst performing local authorities up to the standard of the best. It should also establish a central resource of good practice and embed good practice in statutory guidance.
9. We are concerned about the effect on care leavers of reducing funding to foster carers once they reach 18. The ‘Staying Put’ policy, introduced in 2014, enables care leavers to stay with their foster carers after the age of 18, if both parties agree. However, some foster carers may want young people to stay on with them after 18, but be unable to afford to because of the 70% reduction in the payments they receive. In some cases this may be due to a lack of understanding as to what other support care leavers or their foster carers may be entitled to. The Department expects that it will be several years before it can assess whether Staying Put is working.
Recommendation: The Department should conduct an early review of Staying Put, with a particular focus on the financial and social impact of the policy for care leavers, foster parents and local authorities.
Prepared 28 October 2015