Councils will have returned from the Christmas and New Year break anticipating, foremost among a 101 other things of course, the next update of the Department for Education’s adoption scorecard.
One suspects, giving the built-in ratcheting up of the targets, that the headlines might leave us with an overall impression of too little progress. Now, having had “Only Good is Good Enough” tattooed on my forehead as my main Christmas present this year (there were too many letters for this to go on my knuckles), please be assured that I eschew low ambition and mediocrity. However, I also have “Remember Context” inked in elsewhere (it’s for you to imagine where).
So, here is a real (West Midlands) story of progress and ambition that serves, I hope, to reinforce a third maxim. That a dataset is there to enable the asking of intelligent questions; it never provides the whole answer in itself.
What the most recently published analyses for adoption performance show is that there has been an overall 15% improvement in the number of children adopted from care nationally over the past year. This headline is most encouraging and bears testament to the sector’s commitment to engage with and jointly drive the government’s adoption reform agenda to the benefit of children.
However, even when disaggregated to a local level, this output figure will not fully provide an accurate picture of an individual local authority’s performance and improvement trajectory – let alone give any insight into the quality of the services, the human outcomes for the children and, perhaps most importantly, the extent to which the most needy and/or challenging children are being considered.
It is welcomed that the guidance issued by the DfE to councils – (Breaking Down Barriers to Adoption) – made it clear that councils should be considering adoption as an option for more children. Even more so that it made particular reference to the fact that adoption should be considered for those who may have been overlooked in the past – such as older children/young people or those with disabilities – and that children must not be denied an ‘adoptive’ home while waiting for an exact ethnic or cultural match.
However, in being ambitious and committed to securing adoptive placements for older children or those with additional or complex needs, and not taking the decision to change the care plans to long-term fostering for those children who can wait longer than the scorecard measure of ‘21 months between entering care and moving in with their adoptive family’, local authorities can present as ‘poor performers’.
But it is reasonable (as opposed to under-aspirational) to argue that measuring timeliness alone does not fully or fairly represent the ambition or effectiveness of an individual council.
And what everyone wants to avoid, or should want to avoid, is a very familiar unintended consequence of being driven by raw targets, namely that local authorities may strive to meet scorecard measures regarding timeliness of placements at the expense of concentrating on the challenging but essential ambition of finding permanence, meaningful and lasting attachment, and security for so-called ‘hard to place’ children.
To illustrate, there is a local authority in the West Midlands area which has taken a proactive approach to delivering against the requirements of the adoption reform agenda. It has seriously and maturely considered issues raised through inspections and internal diagnostic work, alongside statistical information reported in the adoption scorecard, and has used the adoption reform grant to support a restructuring of the adoption service.
This has promoted a much more proactive focus on adoption recruitment and finding families for children. Supported by an innovative marketing and recruitment campaign, this has led to improved performance over the past 12 months in both these areas, including securing adoptive placements for several children who have been in care longer than 21 months.
This is clearly a positive outcome for these children and something that this council should be proud of. However, these achievements will not be reflected in the scorecard.
So, when opening your newspaper/turning on your tablet at breakfast one day later this month let’s ensure we avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the headlines – good, indifferent or bad – and work carefully and in a considered and thoughtful fashion to dig below the surface. Then let’s issue the plaudits and brickbats – for there will be both, but they need to be issued wisely.
Mark Rogers, outgoing chief executive Solihull MBC and incoming chief executive, Birmingham City Council