The Chancellor George Osborne says that 2014 is the year of hard truths. We agree. It is time for hard truths about children's homes. It's time the Government, as Osborne said about Labour and economic strategy, 'was straight with people' about children's homes. It's time for the leadership that the Government's own data demands and they use it to confront the misleading media portrayal that has existed for the past 21 months.
With confidence, the Government can paint a completely different picture of children's homes, one based in reality, and we look forward to the Children's Minister, Edward Timpson, taking the opportunity to do so at the Education Select Committee.
The Government can now decide to stand by its own data and sweep aside previous inexactitudes, extrapolations and interpretations, and challenge anyone who makes a selection that misrepresents. As Michael Gove said on another matter recently in the Daily Mail we must not feed myths. Nick Clegg said yesterday we must beware the 'extreme...unrealistic and unfair.'
When it comes to the future of children's homes the easy work has been done: there have been seven months of expert discussions that have led to consultations and recently published proposals. But, as we have seen with the delay to the introduction of risk assessments for new children's homes, seeing if the proposals can be done is another matter.
Nick Robinson said about the Chancellor's speech that it's as much about politics as it is economics, and so too is the future of children's homes. There is still much we don't know about the direction of this Government towards looked after children: its ideology has been veiled in the few funded developments, adoption first priority, fostering next.
These few developments cannot be said to amount to the comprehensive policy that is needed that covers and directs the work of children's services. You get positive children's homes in a positive children services system. So for children's homes we have reached the end of the beginning, but more widely, as Osborne said, the job is not even 'half done'.
The baseline for the future discussions has to be set by the Government's own data.
At the Education Select Committee before the Christmas break, Michael Gove said action would follow when the Government is 'absolutely certain that we've got the situation right ... and the policies are properly aligned', but that is delayed until an unspecified number of children's homes nationally have improved within an unspecified time.
So where do we start with this data, the DfE data pack on children's homes. Government data should be irrefutable for all. The point of such a document must be to act as a foundation to evidence based policy. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/265944/childrens_homes_data_pack_2013.pdf
In brief, it states the quality of homes: 72% Good or Better; 16% Outstanding; 56% Good; 24% Adequate; and 5% 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.
Another new research report for Government referred to in the data pack tells us that most placements away from the home area are 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) http://www.cwrc.ac.uk/projects/1216.html
Here is a reality Government can champion. In less than favourable circumstances over the past year the residential sector has sustained its evidenced level of delivery. It is time for the Government to acknowledge the resilience of this vital sector and to stand against those who seek to turn a song of success into a dirge of failure.
We need more research and data and we should not be afraid of changing our minds when we have better information.
There is an example of a piece of its own data that the Government possesses all the information to challenge. The costings for children's homes in the data pack are inaccurate. A colleague and I have undertaken the most extensive scrutiny ever applied to this matter through a Freedom of Information exercise and we report our findings in the Personal Social Services Research Unit 2013 publication http://www.pssru.ac.uk/project-pages/unit-costs/2013/ On average, an independent sector home costs £2,841.
Only hard truth can help ensure that the residential sector can continue to thrive and improve.