Improving the Lives of Vulnerable Young People's Lives Is the Number Once Priority of Children's Homes Providers

18/10/2013 12:21 BST | Updated 18/10/2013 12:21 BST

The first Ofsted annual social care report includes yet another recording of the sustained good practice that exists in our children's homes. Providers are clearly meeting what is required of them. Every time the bar has been raised, providers have met the challenge.

Providers agree with Ofsted that the National Minimum Standards are not ambitious enough. It is something providers have been saying as long as there have been such standards. The current standards do not reflect the needs of the children or the role and task of the practice needed to meet them.

It is encouraging to read Ofsted agreeing with the providers' perspectives and signals a change from reactive behaviour management to proactive positive environments and positive behaviour support.

On this, providers have been continually requesting practice guidance from Government. The Independent Children's Homes Association (ICHA) already has practice guidance for its members and has had a Code Of Practice for many years.

Practice improvement needs partnership. It is too urgent to wait and the ICHA is taking a lead on some aspects of practice development. The evaluation of the quality of care will be boosted by a forthcoming good practice toolkit from the ICHA that we will make freely available. The ICHA supports a national consensus and benchmark for the external monitoring of the quality of care. It's called a Regulation 33 in the sector.

The report quotes the words of a young person, who said: 'I'd be happy if I knew what was happening to me.' This is exactly the same experience as providers are having.

National and Local Government and agencies must stop playing the family party game of Consequences with the future of the children's homes sector. Each announcement is made without any regard to any previous ones and without any guiding direction of strategy, and with collectively or specifically unknown outcomes.

The ICHA works in an open, transparent and collaborative way. There are no surprises over what we think or the strategy the sector needs. It's all on our website and you read it in these blogs.

The children's homes sector has become used to watching how what should be a good news story of celebration being turned to be yet another sandbagging.

This unevidenced attrition must cease. The truth that has been patiently explained by providers over the past year and a half, and now attested to by the Government data set on children's homes and the Ofsted social care annual report, must now be followed by reconciliation.

It is no longer good enough to assume that there is no hierarchy of placements when the reality is of young people arriving at children's homes at 14.6, the number of some looked after children with three, five or more placements in a year steadily rises, and screams a different story.

Far too frequently the story goes as follows: fostering, in-house children's home, independent fostering and then independent children's home, even when the initial assessment says something different.

All too often the same construction of costs, outcomes and value for money are skewed away from children's homes, especially those in the private and voluntary sector.

We are now moving to a stage where we can engage in a discussion that has both complexity and depth. We can analyse the reasons for children's homes enduring the continued current correlations of the failures that lie elsewhere: in previous placements or wider children's services. The Ofsted report provides an opportunity to amplify the positive message that we must no longer use our children's homes as a last resort.

This new and expansive perspective brings an opportunity to thank the sector for delivering magic and miracles.

However, we need to ask incisive questions. What is it that is expected from children's homes, when most young people stay less than 6 months? Why in Europe do they talk about children's homes as an 'upbringing,' whereas here we use this special space solely as an intervention? Why is the main ingredient of care, relationships, structurally ruptured yet again, for young people who may have had repeated experiences of people being taken from them just as they were getting to know, and crucially, trust them?

We do not have a level playing field in our use of our children's homes and by denying this we deny young people opportunity to access the resources that can be the most appropriate placement. We are not making the best use of our children's homes and this is not always the responsibility of providers.

The wider picture and future developments include a scrutiny of local authority decision-making on placements. There are proposals for senior personnel in local authorities to personally and professionally 'sign off' what are termed 'Out Of Authority' placements, outside of the local authority. This should change things dramatically, ending cost compromising care decisions, ending delays to accessing the right placement at the right time through diminishing needs.

It's time for leadership, with support, from our policy makers. No more nudge economics that isn't working. For high level needs, we have too little provision. Some needs will always present risk. In some instances the Ofsted inspection framework can only downgrade when there is risk. Yet if you need to be Good or Better to take admissions you will have to accept less risky young people. What is the strategy for these young people?