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Children in care: caring for our future

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The Children in Care bill comes before Parliament in November, with initiatives aimed at improving the educational outcomes and life chances of children in care. So what do those working in children's services make of it? Simon Vevers finds out.

Keyelements of thebill

  • Councils to pilot commissioning of services through independent social care practices

  • More focus on the quality and transparency of care planning

  • Placing the role of the designated teacher on a statutory footing and making sure children in care do not move schools in years 10 and 11 except in exceptional circumstances

  • Making sure children are not forced out of care before they are ready.

  • Giving them more say in moves to independent living and supporting them for as long as they need it

  • Improving the quality and stability of placements

John Freeman

Joint president, Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), and director of children's services, Dudley MBC

John Freeman welcomes the Care matters: time for change white paper and the forthcoming Children in Care Bill because they focus on improving attainment at school and continuing support for young people beyond the current statutory care leaving age of 18.

He says giving them the right to remain in foster care until they are 21 will remove the 'cliff-edge effect' where they are pushed into independent living too early something that does not apply to other children.

Mr Freeman says: "We support the maximising of stability of placements both in school and foster care.

"If you are moved around a lot then you are going to find it more difficult to achieve. We support the notion that achievement at school is an important innoculation against future poor outcomes."

Mr Freeman insists that the statutory duty on directors of children's services in relation to corporate parenting must not be diluted. "We also have to make sure that social care practices are accountable and have appropriate budgetary constraints just as other social workers have," he adds.

Anne Western

Deputy leader and cabinet member for children's services, Derbyshire CC

Corporate parenting the principle that councils as a whole have a responsibility for children in care is already being
implemented through inter-agency working in children's trusts, Anne Western (Lab) says. "In many ways the practice is ahead of where the white paper is."

But Cllr Western is not convinced that independent social care practices will be more effective. She also has concerns about accountability and quality assurance.

She wants a greater emphasis placed on training school staff and governors about the issues affecting children in care, and is sceptical about the proposal to force schools to admit them. She warns: "In reality if they [schools] admit children in care under sufferance you won't get the best outcomes. We have to generate an understanding of the issues and then look at it more as a carrot and less of a stick."

The designated teacher role, which is already well-established in schools in most councils, should be extended to further education colleges, Cllr Western believes. "Too many looked-after children go to college, don't like the course they have opted for, drop out and never go back," she says.

Robert Tapsfield

Chief executive, Fostering Network

The white paper's insistence that aspirations for children in care "must be no less than the ones we have for our own and should inform every corporate, collective and individual decision," is welcomed by Robert Tapsfield. But he warns: "That poses a real challenge for councils because that is not happening at the moment."

He says it is "very disappointing" that a proposal in the initial green paper to introduce registration of foster carers has been omitted from the White Paper. "We saw registration as one of the ways in which the government could ensure there was an increased recognition of the work foster carers do and the need for increased training and resources. They are part of the paid workforce undertaking a professional job of work," he adds.

He says that resources are "never sufficient" and greater investment in foster care and children's services is required to improve the quality of care for children in care. But he adds: "There are many savings to be made if we get that care right. More successful outcomes will lead to fewer young people ending up in penal institutions or being treated by mental health services."

Martin Narey

Chief executive, Barnardos

Martin Narey chaired the working group looking at the future size of the care population, whose findings were fed into the white paper. He says: "Our main concern should be to offer more family support to prevent children having to go into care in the first place and it should be easier to facilitate care by families and friends."

He adds: "An area I am particularly concerned about is getting children into the best schools and getting councils to override allocation procedures. The reality is that most children in care, because they don't have a parent fighting for their education, go to the worst schools."

The former head of the prison service says that a typical pathway for many children in care is that "they go to a rotten school, get moved repeatedly, get excluded from school, get into trouble and end up in custody. The white paper rightly points out that children in care are three times more likely to get a conviction or caution than other children." He adds that children in care should go to the best schools and not be moved in the crucial years of 10 and 11 a commitment he insists will "not cost a penny" and over time will make "a major difference to their lives".

David Hawker

Director of children, families and schools, Brighton & Hove City Council

While David Hawker welcomes the proposal for a young people in care forum, he warns that it "would be invidious to separate them off from other young people".

Brighton & Hove tries to ensure children in care remain in the mainstream by reserving them places on the local youth council. "Their voice must be heard, not just as vulnerable young people, but as people who really have something to say about
children's rights," Mr Hawker says.

But he believes more needs to be done to fulfil the corporate parenting role by ensuring that transport, leisure, recreation and arts policies "benefit young people in care, or at least don't discriminate against them".

He says there are serious resource implications which the government cannot duck, particularly around care placements and the cost of fostering for young people with complex needs. Equally, the cost of financing residence orders, where relatives provide care as an alternative to care orders, is "not properly reflected in budgets at the moment". He adds: "Ultimately we are still looking at costs probably increasing beyond the rate of inflation and that has to be taken on by government."

Tony Howell

Strategic director of children, young people and families, Birmingham City Council

The white paper draws on best practice, including that inScandinavia, where social pedagogy treating the child holistically - is a key component in helping looked- after children, which Tony Howell says can only be a good thing.

"The whole idea of social pedagogy is to support the whole child and think about all aspects of development and approach the child on their own terms.

"It is appropriate that children who are some of our most vulnerable should have that kind of focus available to them."

Mr Howell says the plan to give children in care a voice through a forum is already in place inBirminghamwhere the Rights of Children group enables senior figures in the authority to hear their views.

This is reinforced by a designated person in each of the council's directorates charged with ensuring their interests are met.

Mr Howell adds: "We all have responsibilities for children in care and part of the challenge will be how we can extend that commitment to getting better outcomes for these children to other members of the community, to businesses and other
agencies."

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