13.The needs, wellbeing and life chances of young people must be the primary concern of all people and organisations involved in the children’s care system. While we appreciate that there are challenges—such as funding and resource pressures, legislative requirements, and political concerns—which can introduce other competing priorities, they must never be allowed to distract from the ultimate goal of providing safe homes, loving families and happy lives for these children. As part of this inquiry our predecessor Committee held a seminar with a group of young people, and in November 2017 we held an evidence session where we heard directly from three young people with personal experience of care.
14.One of the main issues that came through in evidence submitted to this inquiry was the importance of appropriate matching and placement stability. We received written evidence that suggested stability of care enables children to recover from traumatic experiences and facilitates continuity and stability in other areas of life, such as education and the ability to develop friendships and other relationships. There are many negative results of a placement breaking down: placement instability can harm a child’s chances of developing secure and longstanding attachments and affect their emotional wellbeing and mental health, and can cause delayed access to support services and difficulties in maintaining contact with family and friends. Poor matching and placement breakdowns are regularly cited as factors in foster carers’ decisions to give up fostering. The Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP) claimed that “the importance of providing a child centred, needs-based service for placement stability and for carer retention cannot be over-emphasised”.
15.However, concerns were raised over current matching processes and levels of stability. We were told of occasions where matching had been “minimal and of poor quality” leading to “poorly matched” placements, when financial concerns had dominated planning and decision making, and of failures in the planning process and adherence to permanence plans. We heard from many who raised concerns over foster carers being forced to accept placements from outside of their approval range. Ofsted wrote that “the overall quality of practice to promote stability remains too inconsistent [ … ] matching decisions are not consistently as thoughtful and carefully evidenced in foster care as it is for adoptive placements”.
16.The frequency of placement changes was highlighted by many of the young people who contributed to this inquiry. One young person said that they had been through eight placements in four years, another had “moved six times in less than no time”, while another lived in thirteen different foster placements and two children’s homes in five years. Figures for the number of placement changes experienced by young people in foster care are hard to obtain. The Department for Education’s latest annual statistics show that 21% of all children in care experienced two placements in the previous year, with 10% experiencing 3 or more, roughly consistent with previous years. Ofsted statistics show that 2,910 children experienced 3,490 ‘unplanned endings’ in the year 2015–16, whereas in the previous year there were 7,245 unplanned endings, affecting 8% of all placed children. However, these figures are not directly comparable, as the later data was collected at child and incident level, whereas in previous years only the total numbers of incidents were recorded, and unplanned endings where a child changed agency as a result were not counted. The category of ‘unplanned endings’ by definition does not include those placement changes which are pre-arranged, and neither DfE nor Ofsted data illustrate the number of placement changes experienced by a child throughout their time in care.
17.Often, a placement breakdown or move necessitates a change of school. Over 2,000 children experienced at least one educational placement change as a result of a fostering placement change during 2015–16. Research on the educational progress of looked-after children has found that educational placement changes are a significant risk factor for the educational outcomes for children in care, particularly if they occur later in schooling. Longer placements are generally associated with improved results. Instability also increases rate of absence from school, which is another detrimental factor in results.
18.We recognise that not all placement changes are unplanned: some placements are intended to be short-term, and some moves may be pre-planned as part of a child’s care plan. We also understand that there are often very valid and necessary reasons for a change of placement, such as the changing needs or circumstances of the child or carer. However, we were concerned to hear that
Frustratingly, they often break down for reasons that would not result in a family breakdown [ … ] Foster carers, and the children they care for, are not supported to remain as a family—they are too often split up by social workers who do not consider themselves to have the time to help a fostering placement become a family, and then to keep that family together.
19.One means of improving placement stability would be to improve the accuracy and sharing of information prior to the commencement of a placement. Ofsted told us that “sufficient information to children and carers at the point of placement is not always provided”, adding that one in three children told them that they did not receive useful information before commencing a placement. A survey of foster carers by The Fostering Network found that over 30% of respondents “rarely or never” receive full information about the child prior to placement.
20.We heard similar evidence. Foster carers told us that “there are too many cases of critical information about a child’s history, behaviour and needs not being shared openly so that carers can make an informed decision about risk and whether to welcome a particular young person”, and that placements “are seriously affected by the hugely disproportionate reliance on reports and records which are often inaccurate, out of date or which contain false information”. One carer told us that, having recently seen information on one of the children for whom he was caring for the first time, he has learned information that would have been useful years ago, while another said that he was not told that two children he fostered had not been potty-trained. Others suggested that there are too many people involved in the process, meaning that information can be distorted or missed.
21.Young people spoke of the fact that their records often highlight past actions or behaviours, rather than what they are like now, or the reasons for previous incidents:
My referral was terrible. Nobody would foster me; I was classed as unfosterable at 15 years old, for things written that I had done, and not who I was.
22.Some witnesses claimed that information is deliberately withheld to secure placements. The Fostering Network and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services disputed this, but highlighted other difficulties in sharing full and up-to-date information, including time and resource pressures, and confidentiality and safeguarding concerns. Both organisations also emphasised that other professionals, who may know the child better and have more contact time than social workers, should be involved in bringing together all the relevant information to help find the best placement and carer for a child.
23.The need to improve information sharing extends to letting children know when or whether they are going to be moved. We heard from young people who were given less than 24 hours’ notice before being moved to a different placement: one only had the opportunity to grab “a black bag of stuff”, another was moved just four days before Christmas. We appreciate that there are circumstances which necessitate a quick placement change. However, we heard first-hand testimony of the impact of a rapid move on a young person:
They said it would be a couple of weeks until they could find me a suitable placement, but I was there for nearly a year with nothing to edge me on to think that I’m going to be here for a long time. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the placement that I realised, “Oh, I’ve been here for quite a while and I’m suddenly moving out of nowhere” … It was very, very stressful for me.
24.The young people we spoke to emphasised the value of getting to know their foster family prior to moving in, and we heard good and bad examples of practice. While one young person told us that “I didn’t get much info about the carers I was going to live with, about what the house was like—is it comfortable, is it warm and stuff?”, another said that they got to meet the foster carer and the other people in the home, visit the house, and go shopping with their new carer. We also heard that some carers make booklets about themselves, to introduce and welcome young people into their homes. This sort of best practice should be standard.
25.One issue that is close to the hearts of many young people is that of placement and contact with siblings. The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 states that when a young person in care has siblings also in care, local authorities should accommodate them together so long as it is reasonably practicable and consistent with welfare considerations. Ofsted reported that in 2015–16, 13,610 brothers and sisters were assessed to be placed in foster care, with 10,895 assessed to be placed together. Of these, 9,415 (86%) were placed together. These figures do not include children who were already in foster care, however, only new entries. A 2012 survey by Ofsted of nearly 2,000 looked-after children found that 71% of those in foster care who also had a sibling in care were not placed together.
26.Research has found that outcomes for children placed with siblings in foster care are mostly better than for those placed separately, with placement together generally associated with greater stability, improved educational outcomes, and more favourable mental health outcomes (although some with behavioural issues seem to benefit from being placed separately). In his evidence to us the Minister reiterated that the Government feels that it is important that sibling groups stay together, and that social workers and other professionals involved should prioritise efforts to this end.
27.Under the Childcare Act 2016, certain children aged three and four across England are entitled to an extra 15 hours of free childcare a week, on top of the universal provision of 15 hours of free childcare. However, children in foster care were initially excluded from this entitlement. During the course of our inquiry, a group of children’s charities and organisations called on the Government to overturn the decision to exclude fostered children from accessing the additional 15 hours of free childcare. Statistics published by the Department for Education underline the potential impact of investment at this stage in a young person’s life, with 56% of children on free school meals achieving a good level of development by age 5, compared to 73% of their better-off peers. A child who has been in a high quality pre-school for 2–3 years before school starts almost eight months ahead of a child who has not been in pre-school.
28.In response to questions in Parliament on this matter, the Secretary of State said that the Government were “actively looking at the issue”. In a debate in Westminster Hall on 19 December 2017, the Minister for Children and Families announced that the Government would extend the entitlement to 15 additional hours of free childcare to children in foster care.
29.We welcome the Government’s recent commitment to extend the entitlement to the additional 15 hours of free childcare to children in foster care, so that all young people are able to benefit from the same opportunities. We urge the Government to look carefully at how children in foster care getting this extra childcare will access the highest quality childcare.
30.Young people living in foster care spend a large portion of their time at school, so it is vital to get the interaction between these two facets of their lives right. We heard of examples of good practice from around the country, with schools providing young people in care with mentors and initiatives like nurture groups to offer support. However, we heard that, while well-intentioned, many of the behaviours of schools towards these groups of young people can become overbearing, deprive them of their independence, and isolate them from their peers. We heard from young people who were constantly chaperoned around school, or who were called out of lessons. This was seen as “very controlling”, and made the young people feel that the teachers “owned them”. We were also told that while engagement and concern from teachers and school staff is appreciated, it can backfire:
I want to be like everyone else. Treat me like everyone else. Some teachers don’t know how to manage the whole “You’re in foster care” thing, and they give off a really bad vibe towards me and I feel, “Oh my gosh, I actually am in care”. It’s not nice.
31.Some children in care need extra support; others prefer to be treated like their peers. Schools and school staff need to know what is desired by and appropriate for the individual and, so far as is practicable and responsible, adapt their procedures accordingly. This ties in with the need to improve the accuracy and sharing of information about the child, as discussed above.
32.A successful placement, and a successful experience of care, requires young people to be engaged in the process. We were told that listening to and giving appropriate consideration to the views and opinions of young people is “at the heart of good quality social work”, and “can often be the lynchpin that will hold a placement steady and make a child feel that they have a home”. However, evidence we received suggested that involvement was variable, and could be tokenistic. The NAFP said that “the decision-taking process remains distant and aloof”, with children reporting things “being decided for them and being done to them”.
33.Most councils and fostering services have procedures in place to involve young people in the care process, and facilitate the hearing of their opinions, such as children in care boards. However, the number and quality of these vary. Ofsted stated that “Typically, however, too few children are involved in the children in care councils’ activities and the voice of young people is not embedded everywhere in corporate parents’ thinking”. We recognise that there are challenges to getting children involved and giving them a voice in their care. Many rules or procedures which they would change are in place for valid and important safeguarding reasons; younger children may need extra support to be able to understand and make the difficult decisions; and not every request from a child in care can or should be acted upon. However, we heard from young people who had not been involved when decisions were made about their care. This is not fair to the children involved.
34.Following through on commitments made to young people can be just as important. Many young people in foster care have already experienced difficult and dysfunctional relationships with adults in positions of responsibility. This can lead to feelings of disenchantment and a lack of trust of authority figures. One of the purposes of foster care is to provide these young people with a reliable and stable network of support. It is important that care providers, social workers and others involved in decision making recognise that seemingly minor or trivial details, such as a change to a pre-arranged plan, can have disproportionate impacts upon these children.
35.The young people we heard from were very positive about the impact of advocates. One young person told us that their advocate has been “absolutely phenomenal”, while another said that in their experience “advocacy makes social workers get up and do the job quicker”. We heard that having an advocate:
has given me confidence to speak in my meetings now, because at first I didn’t feel listened to. Ever since he has started to speak about my points and they’ve listened to it, I’ve realised that I can actually speak—that they will hear me, because my voice is important.
36.Legislation states that all children in care should have access to advocacy services. However, provision and take-up is mixed, with many young people unaware of their rights or these opportunities. Ofsted reported that there remains “room for overall improvement in children’s awareness and take-up of independent advocacy”. Alison Michalska, President of the ADCS, attributed this to the churn and shortage of social workers.
37.While advocates can offer additional support, the professional most closely involved in the care of a young person in foster care is usually their social worker. The issues which the young people we heard from raised regarding their experiences with social workers were largely focused around turnover, caseloads, and quality, all issues which have been previously recognised and highlighted in work such as our predecessor Committee’s report on social work reform.
38.Many young people highlighted how many social workers they have had, commenting that this makes forming a connection difficult, and that this problem is exacerbated when they lose one with whom they had a good relationship. We were told of the frustrations caused by a social worker not responding to calls or drifting out of contact, or failing to take action on a request for long periods of time, if at all. While good social workers were roundly praised—they “made my life 100 times better”—one young person told us that they did not even know their social worker’s name, causing him to stop seeing social workers as helpful.
39.High quality social work can have an immeasurable impact of the life of a young person in care; however, so can poor quality, overburdened or disrupted provision. Government figures show that there is great variation in the caseloads of children’s social workers. While the average caseload is 16.1 cases per social worker, there is a range from 7.6 to more than 30, with 11 councils with average caseloads of 25 or higher.
40.One of the purposes of foster care, as with all forms of parenting, is to prepare young people for life after care and living independently. The transition to adult life is challenging for all young people, but for those in foster care there are additional challenges and considerations. Young people are classed as care leavers from their eighteenth birthday. However, as was highlighted by many witnesses, young people not in care do not leave their families as soon as they reach 18. Some remain living with their parents well into adulthood, many leave home but return as circumstances change, while most visit home and maintain contact with their families regularly. Yet while initiatives like Staying Put facilitate a degree of contact in early adulthood, young people who leave foster care face obstacles in maintaining ongoing relationships with their former carers. Returning for short periods is hindered by the fact that, if their former carers have new placements, they may need to be DBS checked; similarly, should a young person go to university, they may not be able to come home for holidays as what was ‘their room’ may be occupied by a new young person. We heard that there are some carers and young people who do not know that they are allowed to maintain contact, or know how to do so, and that for many in the system the presumption is that children will leave their foster families.
41.Kevin Williams, Chief Executive of The Fostering Network, questioned what being told, in your early- or mid-teens, that they will be leaving the family that cares for them does to a young person’s confidence, while Professor Harriet Ward from Loughborough University emphasised that young people in foster care need to be supported in maintaining relationships:
These are children who have learnt before they come into care that relationships will end, that they will be severed. We need to be encouraging them to learn that relationships are successful and a positive relationship will persist, not that it will be cut off short.
42.The Staying Put initiative came into force in May 2014, through the Children and Families Act 2014. It requires local authorities to facilitate, monitor and support arrangements for fostered young people staying with their foster carers until they reach the age of 21, where this is what they and their carers want. DfE statistics show that in 2016–17 51% of young people were still living with their former foster carers three months after their eighteenth birthday. This is a slight decrease on the figure for 2016. Both the number and proportion of 19 and 20 year olds who remained with their former carers rose again, to 25% from 23% in 2016 and 18% in 2015.
43.Staying Put has been widely welcomed. The Local Government Association called it “an excellent initiative”, while the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said that “it is absolutely the right thing to do for our most vulnerable young people”. Kevin Williams told us that “The policy has the ability to be transformational for long-term outcomes for children in care”.
44.However, there are many issues with the current structure and administration of the initiative. We heard that knowledge of and responsibility for Staying Put varies across the country, and that many carers are confused as to what it means. As a Staying Put placement is not funded at the same level as the foster placement, it is often expected that the care leaver will contribute financially, and this can force the young person into reliance on benefits at a young age, and change the dynamic between the young person and their foster carers to more of a tenant-landlord relationship. The lower allowances received by carers for Staying Put placements are also a major concern: 40% of respondents to The Fostering Network reported a reduction in their allowances, with a quarter saying that their young person was not able to remain with them because they could not afford the drop in income. By keeping care leavers with their carers past the age of 18, Staying Put also reduces the number of available places, further impacting capacity in the sector.
45.We also heard that there are concerns over the resourcing of the programme, with current funding levels regarded as insufficient. The policy has been backed with £40 million of Government money over the first three years, but the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said that data has shown a shortfall of £13 million in new burdens funding allocated to local authorities in August 2014, and this financial gap has increased over recent years as more young people take advantage of Staying Put. Harvey Gallagher, Chief Executive of the NAFP, said that “by hugely under-resourcing Staying Put, we have placed the strain on foster carers themselves and relied on their good will rather than the system trying to support them”. Professor Harriet Ward, who worked on the piloting of the Staying Put programme, said that to hear these issues was “heartbreaking”, as they were all issues which had been identified during the pilots, and which have evidently not been addressed.
46.Staying Put will not be the right option for every young person leaving care. But at the moment, too many are missing out on the opportunity to take advantage of this welcome programme. Funding and promotion of Staying Put must be improved so that all young people who wish to remain with their carers are enabled to do so. Other young people, who may wish to live independently but maintain contact with their former carers, must similarly be empowered to do so.
47.The Fostering Network has suggested that while some issues in fostering need to be addressed by legislative or regulatory change, many are problems with practice and the prevailing culture. We heard through this inquiry that while much existing guidance is commendable, consistency of application is often lacking in many areas.
16 A report of discussions held can be read in written evidence submitted by Action for Children and The Adolescent and Children’s Trust ().
17 Action for Children (), para 1.4; Become (), para 4.1
18 Action for Children (), para 1.4; Ofsted (), para 9
19 Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (), para 3
20 Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (), para 2
21 Karen and Michael Fesemeyer (), para 12; Jennifer Wilkins (), para 4; Barnardo’s (), para 3; British Association of Social Workers (), para 30; Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (), para 17
22 Q55 [Kevin Williams], HC (2016–17) 681; Qq39–40 [Brian Roberts], HC (2016–17) 681; The Fostering Network (), para 9; Q5 [Gemma Ronte], HC (2016–17) 681; Q169 [Dr Heather Ottaway], HC (2016–17) 681
23 Ofsted (), para 10
24 Action for Children and The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (), p 1; Q80
25 Department for Education, Children looked after in England (including adoption), year ending 31 March 2017, 28 September 2017, p 9
28 Judy Sebba et al, The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England: Linking Care and Educational Data, November 2015, pp 5–6
29 Become (), para 4.3
30 Ofsted (), para 10
31 The Fostering Network (), para 11
32 Qq41–3, HC (2016–17) 681; Q143
33 Wandsworth Foster Carers’ Association (), para 9.1
34 Susan and Peter Adams (), para 18
35 Q43 [Brian Roberts], HC (2016–17) 681; Qq41–2 [Michael Fesemeyer], HC (2016–17) 681
36 ABC Fostering (), p 1
38 The Fostering Network (), para 11; GMB Union (), para 38; Francis Boyle (), para 4; Qq42–3 [Michael Fesemeyer], HC (2016–17) 681
41 Action for Children and The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (), pp 7–8; Qq73–4
43 Qq73–7; Action for Children and The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (), p 10
44 Children and Young Persons Act 2008,
46 Ofsted, Children’s care monitor 2011: Children on the state of social care in England, 24 February 2012, p 52
47 Sarah Meakings, Judy Sebba and Nikki Luke, What is known about the placement and outcomes of siblings in foster care?, February 2017; Q164 [Professor Judy Sebba], HC (2016–17) 681
49 The Guardian, ‘’, 8 November 2017
50 Department for Education, ‘Early years foundation stage profile results: 2016 and 2017’
51 Department for Education, Effective pre-school, primary and secondary education project (EPPSE 3–16+): How pre-school influences children and young people’s attainment and developmental outcomes over time, June 2015
52 HC Deb, 11 December 2017,
53 HC Deb, 19 December 2017,
54 Qq67, 70
55 Qq67–8; Action for Children and The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (), p 4
57 Q27 [Alison Michalska]
58 Become (), para 6.3
59 Penny Webb (), para 24
60 Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (), para 48
61 Ofsted (), para 30.
64 Adoption and Children Act 2002,
65 Ofsted (), para 29
68 Qq82–5; Action for Children and The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (), pp 5–6
69 Department for Education, , 16 February 2017, p 5,
70 Q77 [Professor Ward], HC (2016–17) 681; Q16 [Gemma Ronte], HC (2016–17) 681; Q98 [Andy Elvin], HC (2016–17) 681; Q100 [Andrew Ireland], HC (2016–17) 681
71 Q74 [Chloë Cockett], HC (2016–17) 681; Qq75, 77 [Kevin Williams], HC (2016–17) 681
72 Q75, HC (2016–17) 681
73 Q77, HC (2016–17) 681
74 Children and Families Act 2014,
75 Department for Education, Children looked after in England (including adoption), year ending 31 March 2017, 28 September 2017, p 16
76 Q50 [Gemma Ronte], HC (2016–17) 681; Q98 [Andy Elvin], HC (2016–17) 681; Q99 [Harvey Gallagher, Iain Anderson], HC (2016–17) 681; Q100 [Andrew Ireland], HC (2016–17) 681
77 Local Government Association (), para 4.3
78 Association of Directors of Children’s Services (), para 10
79 Q75, HC (2016–17) 681
80 Q76 [Jackie Edwards, Kevin Williams], HC (2016–17) 681; Q50 [Gemma Ronte], HC (2016–17) 681
81 Q98 [Andy Elvin], HC (2016–17) 681; Q99 [Harvey Gallagher], HC (2016–17) 681
82 The Fostering Network (), para 7; The Fostering Network’s Staying Put working group (), para 11
83 Local Government Association (), para 4.3; Q99 [Iain Anderson], HC (2016–17) 681; Q50 [Gemma Ronte], HC (2016–17) 681
84 Association of Directors of Children’s Services (), para 10
85 Q99, HC (2016–17) 681
86 Q76, HC (2016–17) 681
87 The Fostering Network (), para 1
21 December 2017