On Tuesday, 24 November the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield OBE, presented a speech online where she reflected on what she has learnt from children and young people in the 6 years she has been Commissioner, and how they have felt about the care and support they have received. Drawing on new research conducted by her office and stories shared with the Commissioner, including through our helpline, the keynote laid bare the flaws in the social care system and outlined the ways it must change to become more ambitious for children.
Anne was joined by Lemn Sissay MBE, a BAFTA nominated international prize-winning writer and a passionate advocate for reform within the care system and Sophia, a care leaver and coordinator for our IMO project. We would like to say a massive thank you as well to the five children in care; Alicia, Azizah, Luke, Sophie and Tamara who took part in a panel discussion, answered questions from the audience and shared their experiences.
Below is the full speech given by Anne Longfield. The whole event can be watched back online on YouTube, and you can find the slides, and an overview of our consultation with care-experienced children and young people about the care review at the bottom of this page.
It’s over thirty years since Parliament passed the Children Act, giving all local authorities a statutory duty to provide help to any child who needed it to maintain “a normal standard of health and development” – and to provide this help in a way that works with families.
Since then, there have been millions of children who have needed this help and hundreds of thousands of children who have needed the state to step in as a parent – most for short periods*, but others for years or even their whole childhood.
For many of these children, the care system HAS protected them and they HAVE had the stability, love and the support they needed. They have had rewarding childhoods – helped along the way by dedicated, caring professionals, who often go above and beyond what the job asks.
But we also know that there are too many children who are being failed by the care system.
The truth is while the state can be a great parent – it can also be a really bad one. In fact, sometimes so negligent that it would risk having its children taken into care if it was an actual parent.
Many of the reports I have published over the last five years have shown how thousands of children in care are falling through gaps in the system.
Children who fall into the clutches of criminals who want to exploit them.
Children who leave school without qualifications and with limited opportunities.
Children who end up with the same generational problems their parents and grandparents faced.
It is a system that has not kept up with the changing cohort of children entering it, and which is rapidly running out of money.
And without urgent reform, and better funding, it will fail more children.
We hear the consequences of those failures every day.
The girl who told my team that she never bothered to unpack when she arrived at a new children’s home because she’d just be sent on somewhere else “like a parcel”.
The teenage boy who was living in a caravan in the middle of nowhere, with no access to family or friends, and having to borrow a mobile phone to call our help line.
The child who couldn’t get a suitable care home place anywhere in the country, even though a High Court judge found their life was in danger.
And the children who call us to tell us they’re way behind in their education because they’ve had to move to yet another home and the council haven’t found them a school place months later.
These are not even rare occurrences. They are becoming routine.
We do now have a better idea of what’s happening to children in the care system, and those on the edge of it, including through our own CHLDRN app.
And that data doesn’t tell a happy story. For example, last year there were 8,000 children in care who were moved twice or more – that’s three or more “homes” in one year.
Of course, there are so many brilliant examples of children who have thrived in care – remarkable achievements that inspire us and that we should celebrate.
Our own IMO project often shows how children in care have thrived. Like Steven, a PhD student at Sheffield University whose time in foster care inspired him to train as a social worker, or Freya an 18 year old member of the Youth Parliament who speaks up about her time in care to challenge negative perceptions.
But these stories are not as common as they should be.
I want us to be ambitious for all children in care. When the state steps in, it needs to help set up children for life, not increase their chances of ending up on the streets or in prison.
And while we need a care system that protects vulnerable children, it should also do more to support the families of those children.
So often I hear from children in care and care leavers talk about how their families never received the help they needed, and how different things might have been if they had.
I’m always struck by the resilience and positivity of children in care. Most children tell me they think care was the best option for them and many talk of the love and support they receive from foster parents, carers, teachers and social workers.
Yet at the same time they have to deal with unbelievable bureaucracy just to do the same things children who aren’t in care take for granted – like going on a sleepover at a friend’s house or a school trip.
There are also those children that the system really struggles to accommodate – it treats them as a risk to be managed, not a life to be lived. Despite the best efforts of some staff, these children can experience a system devoid of empathy, compassion and love.
In a report we are publishing later this week, we’ve found councils are asking a court to approve the locking away of more and more children – sometimes in places that are completely inappropriate, like caravans or holiday homes because they are the only places that can be found to keep them physically safe.
This is not a system that is empowering most children.
That is why I pushed all the political parties to include a commitment to an independent and robust review of the care system in their election manifestos.
I was pleased they did, and now this Government must deliver.
This is the scale of its challenge:
There are 80,000 children in care in England – equivalent to the population of the City of Bath.
400,000 children have a social worker – nearly the population of Newcastle.
And over the past six years, 1.6m children in England have needed a social worker at some point – that’s more than the population of Merseyside.
These numbers bring home how important it is to get rid of the stigma around care. One in eight children in England will need a social worker at some point in their life – this is no longer an uncommon occurrence.
We need to remember too that most children in contact with social care won’t ever enter care. Rather, they are in a family which needs the help and support of the state.
Sadly, the statistics show that the state is providing this help in an inconsistent way, and that children are not receiving the outcomes they should.
For example, we know that 1.6m children have reached the threshold for statutory intervention in the past six years, yet just 17% of these children go on to pass English and Maths GCSEs.
This is not a normal standard of development, and the state has failed in its statutory duty to those children.
Then there are the many more children with additional needs, living at home with risks, who get no support whatsoever.
Research from my office suggests only a tiny proportion of children who need support from social services, actually get any.
The reason for that is often financial.
I’ve spent the last few years arguing for better funding for children’s social care. Currently, spending is more than £9bn a year. This is a lot of money. For context it is about two thirds of the police budget for 2020/21. And funding for children’s services in real terms is about 70 per cent higher than it was in 2000.
But over the last decade, it has fallen by about 16%, while referrals have increased by more than 100%. The result is that last year local authorities overspent on children’s services by around £800m.
To stand still, children’s social care will need an additional £3-4bn per year over the next 4 years. More and more of this spending is going on fewer and fewer children.
It makes no sense that we spend hundreds of millions more on children’s homes, but we spend a billion less on Sure Start – at a time when families and children tell us they want more support.
And a joined-up care system that worked would not be constantly having to divert money way from prevention and family support programmes and into these high-cost interventions.
So, we have services which are both unsustainable and insufficient.
Despite soaring costs over the past two decades, the story of the care system is still: not enough help, early enough, which is leaving children and families to tip into crisis.
And things are now on a precipice with council revenues hit by Covid. Next year is a real crunch point, with council revenues hit by Covid-19, just as families are facing the biggest economic shock in a generation. Unless emergency funding is granted in this one-year spending review, family services will be in deep trouble.
I think the underlying cause of all of this is a system that has become almost entirely focused on the need to safeguard children from immediate risk – too much on process, and not enough on either wider need or outcomes.
I believe attitudes are changing though.
Covid has shone a light on the needs of vulnerable children and forced some to confront what happens when you strip away basic support such as health visitors and social work visits. It has also put a focus on the importance of free school meals, the scandal of food poverty and the outcomes of disadvantaged children who were out of school for six months.
This is a golden opportunity for the Government to improve the experiences and outcomes of vulnerable children in the care system, through the care review.
It should start by looking at what we know works, when it’s done properly:
What we know less well is how to spread that across a complex multi-billion pound social care system.
Secondly, the review must recognise the importance of families.
Social care is not just about replacing parenting but supporting it. It needs to consider the fundamental nature of the relationship between the state and the family.
It needs to answer the question: how can a care system work alongside families so we have a more collaborative way of helping these children flourish?
This is even more vital when you consider new analysis done by my team which shows more than half of the children entering care will be back to their families within a year.
The review also needs to hardwire permanency and stability into everyday decision making.
Whether a child is with their family, a new adopted family or in the care system, they need stability and permanency. Decisions made with children and their families should always be focused on where they will be in six months, three years, five years from now: that is especially true for children coming up to their transition out of care.
It is vital that children are involved in these discussions, so they know and can shape their long-term plan.
The review should also consider whole packages of support.
Social workers do many great things, but they can’t do everything. In reality, the success of any help will depend on other services like housing, education, healthcare, and financial stability.
The review should propose moving from a reactive safeguarding system, whereby different services identify risks to children and notify the local authority, to a proactive one, where agencies come together, identify the needs of children and plan together to meet these needs.
It should also consider a national care system.
I want decisions to be taken locally, involving families. But some issues need to be tackled nationally, and all children should be entitled to the same standard of care. Children’s social care has not had the same national leadership as the NHS.
Are we really happy with 152 different social care systems?
It needs to look at the pinch points. How much funding is needed and how should it be structured? How do we recruit and retain social workers and senior leaders? How can the shortage of specialist residential care placements for children with complex needs be tackled? What is needed to protect the increasing number of children who are at risk from threats outside the home?
And how do we invest in prevention while ensuring high cost interventions are still funded?
The review should look at how to empower children in the care system. We need to do more than just give children a say in decisions that affect their life – from the everyday to the life-changing – but to feel confident that their say really counts.
While the Children Act enshrines the importance of children’s wishes and feelings as a central consideration, too often children’s experiences of care is one of having things done ‘to them’ not ‘with them’.
When we asked children what they would like to see in the care review, they told us about their frustration at decisions made about them which made no sense, with nobody who could convincingly explain why that had to happen.
We have to start listening to them and I want the care review to recommend how we can move from legislative principle to everyday practice, so that children’s rights are embedded in all aspects of decision making.
The review also needs to embed the importance of linking data to monitor needs and outcomes, both inside and outside the care system. Education outcomes are too narrow a picture of what that child might have achieved in care: better relationships, stability, improved mental health, better relationships with birth parents.
And a report we are publishing shortly, looking at teenage care entrants, will show how little the state knows about which children are most likely to end up in care later in life. Too often the signals of risk only become evident once a child is already involved with social care.
With the exception of our own Stability Index, too much of the data is a tick-box about process, not useful information about outcomes.
There is no objective way of demonstrating either value for money or quality of results. Too often this ends up with a system making last minute crisis calls at huge financial cost and no evidencing of how improvements could be made.
I want a review which delves into all these areas, which is swift, genuinely independent, and most importantly which is implemented.
Because there will always be children who need the state to step in and protect them. No child should ever been seen as too complicated to help, or someone that nobody knows what to do with. People in the system have said this to me and I’m not prepared to accept it.
We know there is so much high-quality care out there – my office did a virtual visit recently to a secure children’s home where all the children were really positive about their experiences.
So let’s build a system where those experiences are standard. A system which recognises each families’ unique situation and responds to the need of every child, wherever they are in the country, with the same standards of protection and support.
A system that pays more attention to the everyday experiences of children in care, that can increase capacity to support the most vulnerable children, that improves the life-prospects of children, and that helps those children currently ignored altogether.
So that whenever a teacher is worried that a child in their class isn’t thriving, they know where to go. When a family is struggling with their child’s behaviour, they know they can ask for help, and not censure. When a child has to be taken into care, they find a warm family environment. When they hit crisis, the system is able to cope.
And that for all these children, there must be an ambition and support in place to see them thrive – to grow up happy and healthy and have all they need to succeed in school.
I often talk about the choices facing politicians – and this is one of them. You know the system is failing thousands of children, you know it needs urgent reform and you know it can’t survive for much longer without serious investment.
Will you apply a sticking plaster? Or will you stand up for the thousands of children who are in your care and do what needs to be done, so that every child is not just protected, but also given the support the need to live their best life?
The decision you make will shape the lives of hundreds of thousands of children for decades to come.
*More than half of children who enter care each year return to their birth parents within twelve months, internal CCO analysis