The gap between the rhetoric and the reality of government proposals for children's homes is increasingly deep.
I am increasingly at a loss to find a way to help ministers find the empathy for the situation the sector now finds itself placed in. We need our ministers to be role models of effective child care policy and practice, and essential for good residential child care is something called reflective practice.
The education select committee recently asked the children's minister, Edward Timpson to detail the strategy and assumptions that underpin his reform proposals. He was given many opportunities to demonstrate clarity of thought: coherently and confidently articulated into a meaningful narrative. The Conservative chair of the committee observed he was conspicuously avoiding doing so. He also asked why the results of a recent DfE consultation showed that the people providing the care are not supporting the proposals. The ministerial response was lacking but let me explain the view from the sector.
Firstly, the sector feels that evidence is consistently ignored. The Government's own evidence tells another story about quality, location, and cost to that we have had over the past two years.
Second, providers experience is that the results of what is being proposed are creating an impossible situation.
The government rhetoric is that everything has been done to sort the sector out.
In the real world it is being pushed over a cliff.
Patiently and resiliently, children's homes have been explaining how the blame for a children's services system that isn't working effectively has been projected on to just one part, and one now rendered powerless to avoid it. We know such displacement activities do not solve problems.
Let's look at the rhetoric and the reality.
The rhetoric is that society can do without children's homes and that early intervention, adoption or fostering will prevent the need for children's homes. The reality is that this has never been so in history and countries throughout the world have children's homes to meet the needs that no other option can.
The rhetoric is we need homes in different safe places. The reality is that new planning requirements are making new homes very difficult to open. Communities acting on what they have read over the past two years actively oppose new homes. It isn't hard to find a provider who will share the view that everybody is trying to move homes on or shut them down.
Children's homes are the most regulated of any children's services. Inspection changes are now making things impossible, a strong but accurate word. If you are seen as Inadequate you can be re-inspected within two months. Yet if you are seen as Requiring Improvement recovering to Good - frequently small things needed only - it takes a year. However, local authorities are being told not to place in homes Requiring Improvement. That's a lot of homes that will not be able to take any admissions affecting a lot of young people. I have asked government to address the political and economic reality of these obvious gaps that will be caused.
The reality is that the new proposals for children's homes put costs up, but local authorities want a cut in fees. Some homes now are just breaking even, not enough for a future, or living off reserves that are running out. With no sign of any upturn, this could mean some will think of closing which affects the readiness of safety, specialism and choice. Already, to keep the Ofsted Good rating some homes have changed their admissions. We have some young people for who there are very, very few places now.
Some local authorities delay payments. Notice periods are ignored, children are moved abruptly. On top of everything else, no one needs this headache.
This is the hard truth about the situation into which our children's homes have been placed.
Any change agent will tell you that lasting improvement comes at the top of a cycle of confidence. Any coach will tell you to combine praise and constructive criticism.
Children's homes deal in gritty realism. Rhetoric is stripped away extremely quickly and the life of a children's home demands that the reality of the situation is met with empathy. This must be true for the policy makers too.
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