THE BLOG

Government Data Telling New Story About Children's Homes

30/09/2013 11:39 BST | Updated 30/09/2013 11:39 BST

It is time to clear your mind of all that you thought you knew about children's homes.

'The right placement at the right time for the right child at the right cost' is the common aim of those in the frontline. The discussion in the past year about improving things for young people with exceptional needs has sometimes been heated. It has also been a remarkable, prolonged and unprecedented scrutiny into practice and settings for looked-after children.

Those taking part have contributed differing knowledge and experience, some come with wisdom from long-standing involvement and expertise, others come new asking searching questions.

After such testing, what knowledge remains is valuable.

With the publication of the DfE data pack http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/c/childrens%20homes%20data%20pack%202013.PDF we are now in a new place that sweeps aside previous inexactitudes, extrapolations and interpretations. Prepare yourself for what you thought was the case to be changed.

In brief, it states the quality of homes. 72% are Good or Better. 16% are Outstanding. 56% are Good. 24% are Adequate. 5% are Inadequate.

The ICHA supports actions to ensure that 'only Good is good enough' and firm action on homes that Ofsted persistently finds are Adequate or Inadequate.

The data pack dispels several myths regarding size, location, ownership, deprivation.

There is the same range of quality no matter who runs the homes, nor does the number of homes correlate to quality or lack of it. The size of a home is not a factor in effectiveness.

Confounding many comments and headlines, the data pack tells us there is no direct correlation between the location of children's homes and level of deprivation.

Regarding location and crime and disorder, the data pack tells us there is a 'slight skew towards deprived areas in the location.' But look at the reference given, The English Indices of Deprivation 2010:https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/6320/1870718.pdf, and on page 54 it says 'Districts can vary enormously. Some contain more variation in deprivation while deprivation elsewhere may be concentrated in pockets rather than being more evenly spread. This makes an overall picture more difficult to establish.' This is telling us that when we seek to have children's homes only in 'safe areas' we will need to use a very clear definition.

Other aspects are reported that are not in the hands of children's homes to change and show the need for the Government to take the lead in directing a cohesive national strategy; age of young people, number of previous placements, length of stay.

We now only have 7% of looked after children live in children's homes. This is the smallest number ever, but is it the right number? Why does England have less use than other countries in the United Kingdom? Why is a children's home the placement of first choice in many European countries?

The average age of young people in a children's home is 14.6. Is this the best age to make optimum use of a placement? Where have they been before?

Most young people are between 14 and 17. Is a children's home only for adolescents? Why is there a wider spread of ages, and especially younger ages, in other countries?

Only 21% of young people stay in a children's home longer than a year. Yet we know that continuity and stability are important, an 'upbringing' and time to make and sustain relationships are vital for resilient young people.

29% of young people will have had five or more placements before arriving at a children's home. What is making the numbers of young people with 3+ and 5+ placements in a year continue to rise?

Many people have made observations about the distance involved with some places children go to live. The data pack gives us an early report from some soon to be published research that placements away from home are often made to secure specialist provision for children with complex disabilities or severe mental health issues, or to establish some geographical distance to break patterns of risky behaviour (child sexual exploitation, offending behaviour, gangs and guns).

There is an urgent need for definition on what have become known as 'Out of Authority.' The current way we collect statistics it can mean round the corner and over the road.

Local authorities have not yet conducted any audits of need so we do not yet know the proportion of local placements needed. As the forthcoming research seems to show it is certainly not 100%. We must ensure specialism, safety and choice and these cannot always be available locally. Over the past year providers have been patiently explaining the need for sufficient, diverse and sustainable homes locally, sub-regionally, regionally and nationally.

There is no doubt that we need to plan where homes need to be located to be most effective. The historical hangover where some regions have more homes than others is changing and will change more quickly if we do not delay this progress through some local authorities now requiring planning permission.

The Government proposals are still far from the necessary comprehensive national strategy and we need more research and evidence. The publication of the data pack is a stage along the road. We are not at the beginning of the end but at the end of the beginning. There is still more needed that will provide the 'heads, heart and hands' to change the graded, sequential and hierarchical way we use our valuable residential options for children that may not be in their best interests. We can use our homes in more diverse ways as they do in other countries.

Finally, let's keep at the forefront of our thinking this finding from the data pack: even with the preference for family and community-based placements, the numbers of children requiring a children's home remains consistent year on year.

The need does not go away, and with data like this used by all we can get it right.