There was some interesting data about foster carer recruitment presented in Ofsted's Fostering in England 2016 to 2017 report published back in March. According to the report:

"There were 114,425 initial enquiries in 2016–17, representing a substantial increase (12%) on the previous year (101,795 in 2015–16). This followed two consecutive years of falling numbers of initial enquiries. This increase was attributable to the IFA sector, which rose by 20%: from 65,645 in 2015–16 to 78,585 in 2016–17. The LA sector actually saw a small decrease from 36,150 to 35,840 (1%).

“The conversion rate of initial enquiries to applications was very different in the two sectors. As last year, 11% of initial enquiries nationally converted to applications. However, 18% of initial enquiries in the LA sector converted to applications compared with just 8% in IFAs. While IFAs have attracted more initial enquiries than LAs each year for the last five years, accentuated by the large increase this year, they have not been as efficient at converting these to applications.”

So, what's going on here? Are independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs, or IFAs as Ofsted call them) really less efficient than local authorities at converting enquiries to applications? I don't think it's possible to draw that conclusion from this data for a number of reasons and I'll explain why.

When a person makes an initial enquiry about being a foster carer, they are likely to contact the local authority where they live and several IFPs. Is that one enquiry or several? How is that enquiry recorded? Do all agencies record every enquiry in the same way, no matter how passing it may be? In a very small scale 'mystery shopper' exercise, the Foster Care in England report found that a greater proportion of IFPs respond to initial telephone calls than do local authorities.

We know that most people who eventually make an application to become a foster carer take some time, understandably, to make this decision, at least months, possibly years. They may contact a number of agencies over that time. Is that one enquiry or several? And not all enquirers are equally as likely to make an application. I have seen that IFPs have got much better at reaching out to people an earlier stage of their thinking about foster care. This is at a time when they're much less likely to make an application. They may come back to that IFP later on and make an application, but then that would appear in the data as two enquires with only one converted, when in fact it was the same person. What is in fact a 100% conversion rate, would seem to be only a 50% rate.

Only a small number of IFPs cover the whole of England (the area covered by Ofsted). For those providers who don't, any enquiries they receive that are too far away from one of their registered branches will be directed elsewhere.

Partly because of the nature of the 'in-house first' policies operated by all local authorities, not all IFPs are sent referrals for the full range of children needing foster care. IFPs tend to care for older children with more complex needs. The vetting post-enquiry and pre-assessment is appropriately rigorous to ensure that anyone entering assessment is seen to be a realistic prospect in relation to the children they need to care for. If an enquirer does not seem if they can meet the needs of this group of children, or it is not what they themselves are looking for, the IFP won't continue to the application stage. IFPs are recruiting carers for a different cohort of children from local authorities. In fact, they often suggest an enquirer contacts their local authority instead. Does that mean they have been inefficient in converting that enquiry? I suggest it means they have made it more likely that the local authority will convert that enquiry and so the foster carer workforce benefits from a new carer.

It would be much more useful if we could consider the conversion rate of assessments starting to carers approved. Some IFPs measure time to first placement following approval as a way of gauging successful recruitment, alongside the ongoing monitoring of carers with primary vacancies and how long they have been between placements. In fact, there is even variation in recruitment across the independent sector – they provide very different kinds of services from each other and aren't an homogenous group, that is one of the strengths of the sector. And let's not forget, 91% of IFPs have good or outstanding Ofsted judgements. They work hard to maintain that and getting the right carers is absolutely central to that aim.