Today delivered a general election result that almost none of us thought possible. Not the pollsters. Nor the politicians. Not even us ‘hard working people’ from ‘up and down this country’, that could even muster any enthusiasm to discuss the election. Perhaps my observation was like yours—universal apathy. The news of a Conservative majority government is now ‘old’, such is the pace of our 24-hour media cycle, and we all know everyone else has quit their jobs.
So what does today’s election result mean for providers of children’s services? A year ago, the Department for Education (DfE) published what it called ‘open consultations’ which set out a vision for the liberalisation of the provision of care for looked after children and young people. This fit with the belief in some quarters that the then coalition government was hell-bent on the destruction of local government as we know it.
There were some local authorities in need of paring down, in my view. Yet, the national deficit, we were told, was so huge that little, if anything, was left to realistically propose as a solution other than radical and painful cuts. When funding is stopped, services stop, and when people stop receiving services they need, that’s discomforting at best, possibly life threatening at worst.
The DfE, and Ofsted, have taken aim specifically at local authority fostering and adoption services, imposing guidelines and timescales on the recruitment, assessment and approval of prospective parents, be they temporary or permanent, in order to improve awareness and find and prepare more loving homes for vulnerable kids who need them. In the eighties, I was one of those, too.
As a specialist recruiter of foster carers, who has worked with both local authority and independent sector providers for some years, this is my prediction for our future. Local authorities that are already being compelled, through cuts in central government funding, to seek external provision of services of services that it can no longer provide sufficiently itself, will find the pace of that trajectory significantly accelerated.
I do not believe that the DfE has any further appetite for waiting around for this to all happen at the evolutionary pace that it would if local authorities were left to their own devices. Expect more targets. Expect more inspections. Expect more sanctions. And expect many, many, more services to be tendered out.
Alongside this, expect local authorities to lose control of adoption family finding activity in its entirety. In my view, having worked inside local authority children’s services, this is both overdue and essential. Far better to take adoption family finding out of local authorities and run the process coherently, nationally, and in a more targeted, proactive fashion. The outcome of that is more children belonging properly in families, developing strong senses of identify and going on to become productive members of society themselves.
What will happen to local authority fostering services? Those that don’t up their game, now, and impressively so, will be tendered out, plain and simple. The government will be castigated by those who believe that child care services are should only exist in the domain of the public sector, but that is an inevitable hazard of any change of this kind. Local authority staff have been given the opportunity to run their own services themselves, as staff-led mutuals, and given the relative luxury of protection from market competition for their first few years’ operation. And yet, take up has been slow.
For independent fostering providers, now is the time to take a long hard look at your foster carer attraction and recruitment strategies. It’s a simple equation—those IFPs that can provide care placement sufficiency are the ones that receive more referrals.
My expectation is that we will see dramatic market consolidation as agencies that can offer economies of scale of sufficient appeal to the average local authority finance director who needs to save £70 million by 2018 are those that make it onto framework agreements, purchasing consortia, and preferred provider lists.
It’s a bold prediction, but much has taken place in recent times that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable, but my prediction for the future of the sector is this: by the time of the next General Election in 2020, I expect there to be no more than 15-20% of local authorities providing a fostering service, and for IFPs, I expect to see a reduction in the number of providers by over 50%.
Sean Ferrer is a foster care recruitment consultant, you can find him at Do Fostering