NAFP statement on Fostering Stocktake report, 6 February 2018
The publication of the Fostering Stocktake report offers a great opportunity for children in care that we cannot afford to pass up. It echos much of what we already know, that foster care is an overwhelming positive experience for most children, despite the huge impact that early experiences and coming into care can have on a child. But we hope it will also move the debate on from some widely held misconceptions about how foster care works and how to achieve the most appropriate placement for each individual child – for surely, that has to be our goal, in the best interests of children and public spending.
We must and should do more to listen to foster carers and the report makes some useful recommendations. Carers often know a child better than any of the others in the team around the child and undertake skilled and complex tasks. Some of this is akin to what we might think of as a professional role but foster care is not one homogeneous task. The role varies to meet the needs of each individual child and there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach to foster care. But we do need to do more to respect the contribution foster carers make to child-centered planning and delegated authority for everyday decision-making.
We know that independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs) offer excellent care for children and are surprised that this was ever in doubt. Ofsted have judged 91% of IFPs to be good or outstanding and less than 1% inadequate. IFPs have often led the way and undoubtedly have improved foster care across the board.
As recently as December 2017, NAFP reported on the challenges and problems of commissioning. We know that local authorities must seek value for money and quality. However, the bureaucratic and costly procurement we have seen in many areas has arguably not achieved this, nor has the adversarial approach taken by some local authorities. We welcome the report's support for greater collaboration across sectors. We should invest in meaningful collaborative approaches to enable local authorities and independent providers to work together to co-design commissioning approaches, contractual documentation and monitoring arrangements. In commissioning, there are purchasers and providers of fostering services, but those areas that have achieved the most are those with the best co-working between both.
It is clear that local authorities should no longer be choosing fostering placements on the basis of an outdated notion of ‘cheapest first’. The Stocktake has found that, given that the children placed with IFPs are older and have more complex needs, the cost differential is not significant enough to warrant the huge factor it has played in justifying ‘in-house first’ placement policies. The most appropriate placement for each child should never have been the cheapest anyway, and we hope that we can now move away from that notion.
We would like to have seen mention of local authorities achieving a greater separation between commissioning and their own in-house services, which should no longer be the service of choice with no procurement having taken place. Support in the report for continued blanket 'in-house first' policies on the basis of cost alone is regrettable and risks children missing out on the placement that is best for them as individuals.
There is still much we do not know about what spending on different foster care achieves. Greater clarity on costs and outcomes must be a part of any future debate. But we should remember what is most important - the child and their foster carer, the support and relationships around them. This is how we will achieve the best outcomes for children and value for money.
The report asserts that there are, at any one time, a large number of foster carers who do not have a child living with them, when we hear in the media that there is a shortage of foster carers. We believe that this is because the carers are not in the right place at the right time when a child needs them. Local authority 'in-house first' policies and poor shared understanding between neighbouring local authorities of sufficiency does not help. Better sub-regional coordination and understanding of vacancies across local authorities and IFPs would be a step in the right direction. A national register of foster carers with the aim of understanding more about where carers are located, and who they are, could be beneficial for planning and sufficiency. But we struggle to see how this could be used as a tool for placement matching, given the fluid nature of foster care and the challenges of so many different providers keeping this up to date.
We look forward to working with government in a genuinely cross-sector collaboration to take the opportunities that this report offers.
Foster care in England: Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers' independent review of the fostering system in England with recommendations to the government about improving foster care.