Care system ‘failing’ to prioritise the needs of children, says commissioner

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England

A lack of planning and oversight of children’s social care is leading to an ‘increasingly fragmented, uncoordinated and irrational market’.

This is the warning from the Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield, who has published a set of reports showing how the children’s residential social care system is failing vulnerable young people.

One of the reports, Private provision in children’s social care, explores the growth of companies providing foster placements and children’s homes.

The report found private provision accounted for almost three-quarters of the growth in the number of children in care between 2011 and 2019. It said: ‘Over the last decade, the challenge of providing capacity to care for the most vulnerable children has increasingly fallen to the private sector as the demand for care has grown and local authority provision has not kept pace, or even shrunk in some areas.

‘There were over 11,000 more children in care in 2019 than there were in 2011 – 73% of those additional children were cared for by private organisations.’

The commissioner raised questions about the way some large private providers were financed, describing the system as ‘opaque’.

She said confusion around names and ownership hampered the effective operation of the market, which made it difficult to ensure the system prioritised the interests of children.

Analysis by the commissioner found local authority homes were most likely to be rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted – 86% of homes fell into either of these categories. However, there was very little difference compared to large private providers, with 84% rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

A quarter (26%) of local authority children’s homes were rated ‘outstanding’ compared to 19% of large private children’s homes. ‘Furthermore, children’s homes run by small private providers (along with those run by the voluntary sector) are more likely to be rated “requires improvement” or “inadequate” compared to those run by local authorities or large private providers,’ the report said.

Longfield said: ‘The growing reliance on private providers, some of whom are making millions, is another symptom of a system failing to prioritise the needs of children. Both the government and councils have failed in their responsibilities by leaving it to the market. Many homes run by the private sector are excellent, but there are not enough of them, and they are not always in the right places.’

The commissioner made series of recommendations, including the launch of the Care Review; a national body to assess levels of need for care provision; a register of ownership of children’s residential homes and foster placements; better understanding of local markets and competition; and standardised, detailed and timely information on services and prices across all providers in the care sector.

Longfield also published The children who no-one knows what to do with, which is the culmination of three years of research into children’s homes, and the 2020 Stability Index, which is the commissioner’s fourth annual study of the instability that young people in care experience.