Reading a densely written statistical analysis is the best cure for insomnia in my experience. For anyone from the independent fostering sector, however, Ofsted’s Fostering Statistical release for 2013-14, published in January, will jolt you wide awake in an instant.

The sector does not emerge from it well at first glance. Of the five ‘Key Points’ at the top of the report, two relate to the 36% increase in the number of children and young people reported missing and both indicate that the large majority of this increase came from independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs), who have a third of all foster placements and 40% of fostering households yet 59% of missing instances.

Not surprisingly given the concerns raised about CSE, this was picked up by several news outlets, including the BBC. Receiving less publicity were figures indicating that 42% of unplanned endings and 75% of children subject to restraint were in our sector. Also, IFPs were the source of most of the 25% increase in the number of misconduct allegations.

Credit is due to the author because these statistics are presented in an admirably accessible style and I encourage you to take a look. They cover all the key aspects of children and young people in foster care and as such deserve to be taken into account in future child care planning, policy and resource allocation. And for the sector, here’s where the first cautionary note should be introduced, because appearances can be deceptive.

On first reading it appears as if there is a serious problem in some areas with the performance of the independent sector. The fact that stats are produced separately for the independent sector and local authorities invites comparison throughout. Whilst it is useful to have these numbers, in the absence of background and context comparisons are of limited value in terms of future policy making and, crucially, improving outcomes for children and young people.

Complacency is the enemy of safe practice and the Department for Education (DfE) would be advised to examine all the elements that go into the complex task of fostering. I would suggest that the apparent disparities are due to two main factors, the complex nature of a decent proportion of IFP placements and, first and foremost, the excellent reporting practices in the sector, an area of inspection where Ofsted are diligent and detailed.

Greater vigilance regarding children and young people going missing is welcome. That’s why IFPs are responding enthusiastically to well-developed local protocols and working alongside police and Social Services, often at considerable extra cost because of the differences in protocols across the areas each IFP covers. This additional factor is not part of the report, again not the fault of the author because the stats are produced with little commentary or editorial, as they should be. However, readers inescapably bring their own context, ranging from the scandals in Rotherham and Oxford about young women in care or formerly in care being abused, exploited and drawn into prostitution to the need to justify budget cuts with independent fostering placements.

It’s not all gloom and doom in the sector. The figures suggest that IFPs are successful in recruiting black and minority ethnic (BME) carers and also offer a high proportion of permanent and child and parent placements. More foster placements are available for disabled children and young people, an increase more pronounced in the sector with a jump of 21%. These directly address gaps in provision.

Any focus on disparities also serves as a distraction from issues that must be addressed if children and young people are to benefit from placement choice. One such is the number of children coming into care. As of March 31st 2104 there were 51,315 children in foster placements, an increase of 1% over the previous year. Interestingly, the number of children who lived in fostering placements at some point in the year rose by 5% over the same period to 84,450.

One possible implication is that a number of children are coming into care for short periods, many of them as part of a sibling group. We know already that the number of care applications has increased since Baby Peter. This is not as a result of any evidence-based policy or direction. If the trend is to continue, research and resources should be focussed on meeting this need and identifying if it is desirable in the interests of children.

Another area is Staying Put. 52% of young people who turned 18 stayed with carers – the figures are about the same for both local authorities and IFPs. The previous year’s figures are not given (I suspect this is the first year these have been collected) so it’s hard to judge what this means for the life chances of care leavers. I am concerned that 48% do not appear to have had the chance to stay put. It would be helpful to know where they are.

A third issue is the number of foster placements. The Fostering Network has campaigned for many years for more foster carers, citing a shortfall of around 9000. These statistics show a 6% increase in both the number of carers and places, substantial given what appear to be long-standing barriers to recruitment.

More work is required to find out what is happening here. Are more families coming forward and if so, what has attracted them to fostering? Has the streamlined application and assessment process been successful and have standards remained uniformly high?

Further, what do we do with this increase? Occupancy rates have fallen by 3% to 63%. Good placement planning requires space in the system and some potential placements are kept free for the sake of children already in the household. Yet 37% of spaces are unused, almost two fifths of the total fostering resources.

One explanation could be that the placements are in the wrong place, i.e. there are shortages in some areas and a surplus in others. Another could be that IFP resources are not being used efficiently i.e. that IFPs’ spare capacity is unused because local authority commissioning processes exclude them. If this is true, this is not in the best interests of children and young people who benefit first and foremost from placement choice.

Overall, these figures are far too valuable to waste on superficial judgements and require considered analysis in order to take evidence-based policy-making and commissioning forward. The differentiation of local authority and IFP statistics implies separation whereas in fact there should be none. Local authorities and the sector are linked inextricably rather than being on opposite sides of the fence.

Alan Fisher, independent fostering consultant and social worker @spursblogger