The current discussion over Ofsted concerns personalities - the chair, the chief inspector, and the minister. It's missing an important point.
Ofsted is an arm of Government: the clue is in the 'gov' part of its email address. Her Majesty's Inspectors are no longer within the Ministry of Education but are part of Ofsted. Whilst there is a space for Ofsted to enter into dialogue with Government, it is a proscribed space and we are still looking for the independent regulator we need.
Intrigued by the spectacle of people in high office falling out with each other, we need to look at what we are not being led to focus on - regulation.
Before we go any further let's be clear we need the right child in the right place at the right time, and that can be family, family and friends, kinship, adoption, fostering, children's homes, supported lodgings, all can be beneficial for Looked After Children and we need more of them all. We need to clear up some anomalies about regulation.
What's a regulated setting for Looked After Children? The only one is children's homes. For everything else it is only a service that is inspected by Ofsted - not the placements.
So by correlation, the more Looked After Children we have the greater the number in unregulated settings/placements. National and local government's future plans are to use these placements more. Any attempt at regulation of these settings is resisted, and so too is that of supported lodgings once a young person has 'left care' despite many people expressing increasing worries about the standards of care received.
These placements are reviewed but by the same agency that made the placement.
It could be said I'm being contrary, or partial, but I'm not. I'm suggesting that there's another reading of what is going on and it is counter-intuitive to the myth we have been given by Government to abide by.
Plainly, we place Looked After Children in unregulated settings. Not only is it inherent in the current way we do things but we stand to do this more as local authorities have to reduce spending.
Meanwhile, we are ramping up the requirements of children's homes through more procedures needed to meet new regulations. More could have been achieved in the reforms but, such as they are, they may be helpful.
Some of these could affect fostering but are not seen as relevant. The most glaring anomaly is that children's homes should only be sited in 'safe areas'. The intention of the regulation is that if homes are in 'unsafe' areas then they will have to move. But not fostering placements in the same area.
Another example is of Ofsted getting strict about children going missing from children's homes. It is right to be strict.
Ofsted inspect local authorities but we shouldn't forget that they are not alone in holding services to account, councillors are corporate parents, and councils have a scrutiny committee.
In the new Ofsted local authority inspections, we've raised questions about young people with an ingrained history of going missing throughout their fostering placements before reaching a children's home where it starts to stop. If this question isn't answered the children's homes will continue to 'cop the lot' for all that preceded their placement in residential child care.
When these points are raised, people say you can't regulate the family setting. But fostering isn't done only for love. For many foster carers this is work. Foster carers are not employees (paying the employer pension would put up costs considerably) but self-employed contractors. They do tax returns, and some have accountants.
There's a move towards local authorities using only their own foster carers with less scrutiny than external independents as there is no contract monitoring by local authority commissioning colleagues, or external monitoring by an independent person, as required in children's homes.
I discussed this with Harvey Gallagher of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers and he gave me the following valuable insight,' Independent fostering providers are inspected and monitored to the max. Ofsted is hugely significant, and sits alongside the awarding and monitoring of contracts. Independent Fostering Providers are very closely looked at. Children are removed from carers at the slightest hint of something untoward. And that's at least partly a reflection of the in-house first preference.' The NAFP are currently going through a judicial review that is considering the legality of the use of in-house fostering first. Approaching all placements on a level playing field was surely the intention in 1968 when the Children Act included that placements should be the 'most appropriate'?
There's something I wrote several years ago about placements that has now been used by the Government - we need 'the right place at the right time for the right child.'
Regulation needs to be seen to have an equivalence across different placement options. We should regulate as children need us to, not as services would prefer us to. We need reliable regular regulation wherever a child resides.