Reflecting on the Westminster Hall debate about children's homes (19th April) an often-used quotation comes to mind, 'If you keep on doing what you've always done, you'll keep on getting what you've always got."
Ann Coffey MP expresses her frustration that in 21 years of involvement in debates about Children's Homes, the issue of distant placements has seen no improvement. She, and others contributing to the debate, urged Sir Martin Narey who is conducting a review of children's homes in the context of wider children's services to tackle the issue.
This is not new territory. There is a plethora of reports over decades. Providers and researchers in the past two years have published many reports and given strategies. The reasons we have the current issues have been deeply analysed. They are historical, financial, ideological, strategic, and pragmatic. All combine to keep matters as they are; we rerun the same issues over decades.
What is striking about the contributions from MPs and from the Minister for Children, is that they recount a history of initiatives, programmes, guidance and inspection that has not brought noticeable improvements. The word "staggering" was used in the debate.
Contributors to the debate variously target different parts of the whole system for criticism in failing to adequately address the issue. Providers are subjected to praise but also sharp criticism as if they were solely responsible for shaping the current supply landscape. Commissioners are roundly identified as both having the powers and responsibility to shape the sector and also having failed to influence that very landscape. One surprising suggestion in the debate was of local authorities accessing capital budgets to develop more of their own provision.
The issue is not ownership.
If you are new to this debate you might think that there is a need for core data, a needs analysis completed nationally using the same methodology giving then drawing together local authorities and providers to agree what is need and where locally, regionally and nationally. You would be right to see these are necessary for sound business planning. Providers and researchers have been calling just this over an extended period of time.
What stops this happening? Maybe it is the complexity.
Anyone studying the sector quickly becomes aware of its complexity. Indeed the debate recognises the huge and complex task confronting Sir Martin Narey. It should not be surprising that national initiatives devised around a theme or generic topic can become entangled by numerous case-by-case examples that can emerge to test any proposed change. It would take extraordinary levels of assiduousness, persistence, and leadership allied to prioritisation of resources to bring about lasting and effective change in this sector.
Is something missing? Can it be put in? A parent can make extraordinary efforts to champion his or her own offspring's future. Maybe it's seeing ourselves as parents for the children in the care of the state? Perhaps therein lies a path to improvement. We have the idea of corporate parents already but maybe we need to give more focus on the parenting?
Parents advocating for their own child can be a formidable force. Parents can overcome differences of opinion that they may individually hold in order to come together to take on the school, the hospital, or whichever institution they are tackling. Parents will prioritise how their funds are spent to put the needs of their child first.
Do we take this role and responsibility when acting as the parents of a child in state care? The children and young people have been given various titles, Looked After Children, Children in Care, Child Looked After. What do we mean by 'looked after' and 'care'? Do we, as a combination of providers, commissioners, legislators and regulators overcome our differences to advocate for the needs of the child in a unified manner? Do we prioritise resources to meet those needs above others?
The Westminster Hall debate offered an insight that over decades the State, and those of us asked to act on its behalf, has not yet grasped its true surrogate parent role. The debate, though congenial, offered insight and evidence that serial initiatives have not been championed in a committed parenting manner.
If we keep doing what we've always done....
So what could be done differently? Many ideas will have been offered to Sir Martin Narey on this topic and it is likely he has not found the sector wanting when he asked for opinions to inform his review. Children's homes providers and workers await his report and subsequent government actions with great interest. The future rests on it.
The debate heard many recognisable statistics quoted throughout. Let's highlight some observations that illustrate that the challenges of the sector are not insurmountable.
At any point in time between 5,000 - 5,500 looked after children are reported by local authorities as being placed in children's homes. Ofsted statistics suggest there are around 1,700 homes registered in England offering around 7,700 places. These are very modest numbers. The scale or volume handled by the sector is in fact small enough to underline that effective solutions could be found.
Not all 150 local authorities in England who have responsibility for looked after children have their own homes, yet almost all local authorities use children's homes, often used as a last resort when all other care settings have been tried and failed.
There are many different types, sizes and functions of children's homes. It is clear that not every child in need of a home would fit every type of home or existing cohort of residents. This generates the need to have a permanent over-supply. It is this seeming inefficiency that makes the sector effective. Without it, the sector cannot respond to the volatile and sometimes unpredictable demand that it faces.
The focus of the debate was to encourage as many types of homes available as locally as possible. There is another aspect to that discussion not in the debate, to meet the local demand then we will need to accept a greater level of vacancy level and 'inefficiency' from one perspective to gain on another.
There is substantial cost to that built-in inefficiency model. Regulation requires homes to be fully equipped and staffed to be able to take even one placement. It is close to a fixed cost model. With more local provision offering guaranteed vacancies costs will rise.
Yet the interaction of purchaser and provider is currently driven by reducing unit costs. The recent ICHA State of the sector report gave an early warning over the parlous state of our children's homes providers. Repositioning of homes from some areas to another will cost and providers do not have the funds. The sector needs to be able to work not from vocation but sound business planning.
The debate heard a call for co-commissioning. Providers have been calling for open, transparent dialogue for years. It is needed. Repositioning of homes from some areas to another requires open, trusting dialogue.
Sir Martin Narey's review is an opportunity to stop "doing what we've always done". It's an opportunity to be the best parents we can be for the children who we take into our care system. Being the best we can be means setting aside differences we may have with our co-parents, and allocating appropriate funding to the task of looking after the child as a priority.