For the last 15 years we have heard a consistent message from successive governments: no child should be left behind. Whether the slogan has been 'every child matters' or 'narrowing the gap', the intention has been the same: to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children. Despite there being some improvements for children, one group stands out as being almost impervious to these efforts: looked-after children.
The evidence paints a bleak picture. A parliamentary committee not long ago concluded that there has been 'little or no improvement in outcomes for children in foster and residential carer'. SCIE's Chair, Lord Michael Bichard speaking recently in the Lords said: 'the failure of children in care to achieve acceptable levels of educational achievement is a national scandal.' Mental health statistics for care leavers are alarmingly bad. There is evidence, too, that looked-after children have little influence over the services they receive. Certainly this was a consistent theme that arose in research we conducted with care leavers. That is particularly shameful given how isolated some of these children can be.
Greater investment in services, improved inter-agency working, and the creation of a more skilled workforce are all seen to be vital to improving outcomes for care leavers. But effective and sustained involvement of looked after children and leavers in service design and delivery is also vital. At SCIE we call this co-production.
To be fair to parts of the public sector, this failure has been recognised. Very effective Children in Care Councils have been established in some local authorities for instance. And the Children and Social Work Bill will place a duty on local authorities to consult care leavers about their services. But greater efforts to co-produce services with children in care are urgently required.
Models that work do exist. New Belongings, a Department for Education funded programme, involves care leavers working closely with local authorities to ensure that services reflect their needs; and it has produced some excellent results. Matt Langsford, a care leaver who is in SCIE's Co-production Network, who was involved in the programme told me that it 'empowered him to use his personal experiences to share knowledge and improve the lives and outcomes of fellow looked-after children and young people'. Models like these need to be replicated.
And at SCIE, as part of a new project for the Department of Health to improve mental health care for looked-after children, we are setting up an advisory group of children in care and care leavers to work with national experts on plans that will lead to better mental health services.
The way forward will require substantial changes to working practices; we are not just talking about doing better consultations with looked-after children and care leavers. In the words of Lord Bichard, again talking about care leavers, 'consultation can too often be a hollow process, the results of which are too easily ignored'. In-depth, sustained and meaningful co-production is required to bring about the vast improvements in services we now expect.