The following speech was given by Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England, at the Independent Children’s Homes Association‘s conference on residential child care which took place on 10 June 2021.
This is my first speech about the children’s social care system since becoming Children’s Commissioner for England in March. And I want to use it to set out why I think now is the time for serious reform, and how essential your role is in achieving the rise in standards and the better outcomes for children in care that all of us want to see.
As Children’s Commissioner, I have a unique responsibility for children in care, by law.
It is my job to make sure their experiences and views are heard by those in power and to advocate on their behalf when their rights and interests are not being met.
So, speaking to and visiting children in care is something we do all the time.
We also run a helpline, Help at Hand, which receives hundreds of calls a year from children living away from home, and IMO, an award-winning online platform for children in care and care leavers. Somewhere children can share their experiences, good and bad, of growing up in care.
In many ways, we are the eyes and ears of children in the care system.
Recently, we ran the biggest consultation with children in England ever. Over half a million children responded to our Big Ask survey, including many children growing up in care.
What they tell us will be at the heart of the Childhood Commission report I’m publishing later this year, identifying the barriers holding back many children and proposing a blueprint for Government to improve childhood.
The survey has been a reminder that while many children are struggling, most children in England are doing well and are happy.
That goes for many children in care too.
Thousands of children who grow up in care live in safe, stable and loving homes.
In fact, the first virtual visit I made after taking up this role was to a children’s home. The children I met there were happy and settled – and looking forward to getting back into the swing of school life with all of their friends after the lockdown.
They told me they had enjoyed doing activities with staff in the home. One girl with plans to study hair and beauty at college was doing the nails and make up of staff members, and some of the other children had developed new healthy routines with the extra time on their hands, like cleaning out the chickens each day and cooking for others in the home.
Of course, one of the upsides of the Covid pandemic for some children was the extra time it gave them to spend with their families.
For many children locked down in children’s homes though, this has been a really tough year.
Many have had to manage without family visits, or outside visits from professionals. Some children in secure accommodation were told to isolate in their bedrooms for 14 days when they moved to a secure home, even if they had tested negative for Covid.
Others had experienced delays in moving homes.
One girl told us she had struggled with panic attacks.
We’ve heard from children who tell us they like the staff in their children’s homes, who have struggled when seeing family with social distancing rules, and who told us they enjoyed going out on drives and getting takeaways during lockdown.
What a huge challenge it has been, for children themselves, and for those who care for them.
And I want to say thank you for the incredible job that children’s homes providers and their staff have done over the last year during the Covid pandemic.
I know that so many of your staff have gone above and beyond what is asked of them, including being in bubbles with the whole home and often staying in homes for weeks on end.
There has been incredible professionalism, big personal sacrifices and a huge commitment to looking out for vulnerable children in your care.
The pandemic and lockdowns have been such a difficult time for all children – missing out on so many of things children love to do, unable to see friends and family, to play out or take part in activities – but those working in children’s homes really have gone out of their way to make life as normal as possible for the children in their care. I don’t think that’s been recognised enough.
I do share your frustration too that children’s homes were just lumped in together with adult social care homes during the pandemic. Yet at the same time, you also were separated from adult social care in other respects. Children’s home staff weren’t included in the prioritisation for PPE, or for testing, or for vaccines.
As a result of these decisions, children’s homes have really had to fight for their children during lockdown, and I know the ICHA were at the forefront of that.
I hope you will accept my sincere thanks for all you have done for children during lockdown. And I hope you will pass this on to all of your staff.
I think this pandemic has really reinforced the important role that the private sector has within children’s social care system.
Of course, there are some people who believe that private companies should not have any role in looking after children and that caring is too fundamental a job to contract out.
I don’t agree.
Many of the best children’s homes in England are run by private sector providers. All of us should celebrate that top quality provision and appreciate the dedication, skills and expertise of the staff working in them.
We should also acknowledge that often the private sector has stepped in to care for our most vulnerable children when many local authorities, and some of our biggest and most established charities, took the decision – for a range of reasons – to close their children’s homes.
Since 2015, the population of children in care has risen by 10,000 to over 80,000 children last year. An extra 41 children need to be found a home each week, and this need isn’t always being met by local authorities. Indeed, nearly one in three local authorities do not run any children’s homes at all.
Private provision accounts for 73% of the growth in the number of children in care between 2011 and 2019. And the number of children in homes provided by the private sector has grown by 42% in less than a decade.
Without private sector involvement, there would have been huge gaps in provision.
But we know too that in recent years there has been a lack of planning and oversight of the children’s social care market, leading to fragmentation, a lack of coordination and an irrational market.
We know that the system is stretched and that the private sector is taking on the care of some often extremely challenging children and young people.
Given the fact that private companies now account for the majority of provision of children’s homes in England, the private sector is where much of the knowledge, the experience, the best staff and the best provision is to be found.
As someone who wants to see rapid and radical reform of the children’s social care sector, it is clear to me that all of us committed to improving the system need to work with – and not against – independent providers of children’s homes.
So my big challenge to you today is this:
Show that YOU can be part of the solution.
That must begin by acknowledging the scale and the nature of the problems we face in delivering a children’s care system that provides stability, love, and care – the basics we all want for all children.
As providers of children’s homes, I want you to be asking yourselves what more you could be doing to improve the outcomes for vulnerable children.
Reform to the system is overdue but is finally on the way. We know the challenges – and now there is an opportunity to be part of the solution.
Because, while I recognise and support the involvement of the private sector, the quality of provision across the system is still highly variable – and in some homes falls far below what we would expect for a vulnerable child.
Ofsted rates the majority of children’s homes as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’, regardless of who runs them.
But some children’s homes are downright dangerous.
Some children in care do not feel safe or looked after in their children’s home. My advice line Help at Hand hears from them all the time.
Too many children in care are being reported missing to the police because it seems like the easy option for staff. They become entangled in the justice system at a young age when they don’t need to be.
Too many teenagers are in very poor unregulated provision, largely left to fend for themselves, barely looked out for, at risk of exploitation or abuse.
Plans to introduce minimum standards and Ofsted inspection for unregulated provision are a good first step, but I hope the care review will enable ambitious and forward-thinking reform so that our care system provides high quality care and support to children no matter what their age.
Too many children are being sent to homes miles away from family and friends, isolating them from important support networks. These children are being placed where property prices are most advantageous for profit margins, not where children need to be.
If a child in care is unable to put down roots and feel secure, is it any wonder their lives are disrupted and their education suffers?
If a child spends half of their secondary school years changing schools, what chance are we giving them to get the qualifications and opportunities they need to go on and do well as adults?
None of this is the sole fault of providers of children’s homes – public or private.
I know that you are just part of one a system that, as a whole, is often not meeting the needs of all children.
My view is that we now need to look at reform of the market. Given that the majority of homes, expertise and staff are in the private sector, we cannot afford to lose you, nor is it likely any government would want to start completely from scratch.
But reform means demonstrating you are open to different models of working with local authorities.
I will not defend any part of any sector which is not interested in improving standards and eradicating poor practice.
While I am happy to praise the private sector where it does well, I do believe that there are some private providers who are providing at best mediocre care, and at worst are completely failing children.
There needs to be a willingness to address some thorny issues.
Staff training, qualifications and support is too inconsistent, while the provision of therapy within children’s social care is patchy, poorly regulated and lacks accountability. Too often local authorities are paying huge sums of money for children’s care and therapy which is not up to scratch.
Notice is too often served on our most vulnerable children at their most vulnerable moments – and without any proper warning.
The LAs who often move children on as they’re settling into a new home to save money.
The cases that come on to my desk time and time again when a child has been given days to be removed from a children’s home.
The children who wake up not knowing where there will be the next day or the next week or the next month.
The children who tell us they feel depressed or even suicidal because they feel they don’t receive the same attention they would in a foster home, or because they are placed too far away from family.
Some children in care are being let down. Change is needed.
And I am optimistic that it is coming.
The Government have committed to a wholesale review of children’s social care – led by Josh McAlister.
The Competition and Markets Authority are conducting a focused review of the children’s social care market – at the behest of my office.
Both reviews are recognition of the problems I’ve outlined. A system creaking at the seams, failing a sizeable minority of children and in danger of becoming overwhelmed by demand and ever-increasing costs.
The question for private sector children’s homes is whether you want to be at the forefront of the radical reform that is needed.
We need better cooperation, new commissioning arrangements and tighter integration that produces child-centred placement finding and stronger relationships between local authorities and local providers.
The private sector should be leading these changes, driving these reforms.
The expertise you and your teams have, the business acumen, your access to capital and your entrepreneurial spirit is needed to bring children closer to their communities, and to provide stable and loving homes where there are high ambitions for children to do well.
But achieving this will mean changing a certain mindset among some.
It will mean showing that children’s needs and the long-term sustainability of the children’s home sector is given a higher priority than simply short-term returns.
It also means getting your own house in order.
I want you to lead the calls for higher standards and better operating models.
Those providers who aim for and achieve excellence should be calling out the unscrupulous providers, and those providers – large and small – who do not challenge mediocrity as long as the profits keep rolling in.
And some of those profits are simply unacceptable. None of us should be comfortable about anyone in the children’s social care sector making £100k annual profit out of a single vulnerable child.
Certain large providers are seeing a profit margin of around 17% on fees from local authorities, which can amount to over £200m a year in total.
The system simply cannot afford to carry on like this, it is unsustainable.
The ICHA must be part of the solution. Work with those who want to improve the system, to improve children’s experiences in children’s homes, to raise ambitions and to improve outcomes.
Look beyond short-term profits, and towards making the sector financially sustainable and better at finding the best placements for children.
Be more ambitious for the children in your care.
Don’t sit and wait for reform to be forced upon you.
Because I am fed up having to take calls from distressed children in care calling our helpline because they’ve been turfed out of a private provider run home, or because they are scared of where they are living.
None of these children express any particular interest in who actually owns their children’s home – but all of them want to feel secure in a home that makes them happy.
They are some of our most vulnerable young people. They have been placed in your care often because they are at risk. It is your responsibility – and many of you are paid handsomely to do it – to make sure they are well looked after, cared for, loved and ready for the world.
I know that many of you are doing a fantastic job, and I am happy to work with you to improve the system.
I don’t believe any of this means recreating the whole children’s social care sector. What it does mean is building on excellence, identifying failure and mediocrity and then improving it.
Over the last two decades, we’ve seen many failing and mediocre schools turned around and transformed into centres of learning that give children better opportunities and set them up for adulthood.
This is a golden moment to transform children’s social care too, calling out the unscrupulous and those only in it to make a quick buck, while encouraging and building on the work of those providers with outstanding homes with high standards and an ethos of excellence.
In so many ways, the pandemic has been a moment to reflect on the mistakes that have been made in the way some services are delivered. Children’s social care should be no different.
So let’s embrace this moment of change, strive to put the needs of children first and improve systems that have been letting down the most vulnerable for too long.
During my term as Children’s Commissioner for England, you can count on me to do everything I can to work with you and others to achieve it.
So that every child in care has the chance to thrive.