- Amid concerns over the quality of provision it began improving the commissioning process in 2014
- Ofsted inspection last year found virtually all care leavers were in suitable accommodation
In a bid to improve outcomes for care leavers, Central Bedfordshire Council began reorganising the way it commissions supported accommodation for 16- to 19-year-olds.
Before 2014, places had been spot-purchased, as and when they were needed.
"One or two providers were dominating the market," says Toni Badnall-Neill, strategic commissioning officer for children's services at Central Bedfordshire Council. "The quality was variable, and the cost was extremely variable.
"At the time there was no oversight of the market. Young people felt they weren't getting a great deal and we know, mainly from anecdotal evidence, that outcomes for young people were not as good as they should be."
A decision was taken to establish a framework agreement in 2014 - setting out the standards expected of supported accommodation providers.
Eight providers joined the framework, going through "light-touch" quality assurance as part of the process. In order to get a better handle on how young people in supported accommodation were progressing, one of the requirements of the framework was for regular monitoring reports of young people's outcomes covering issues like educational attendance, participation in positive activities, engagement in offending behaviour, and child sexual exploitation.
In 2016, the council moved to step up the requirements further. It upgraded the framework agreement system - an "umbrella agreement" that sets out the terms relating to price, quality and quantity under which individual contracts can be made throughout the period of the agreement - to a dynamic purchasing system (DPS). Once a framework agreement has been awarded a lengthy process is needed to reopen it, whereas with a DPS new suppliers can join at any time, and it is run as a completely electronic process. A total of 42 providers applied to go onto the DPS, with 17 succeeding.
The individual homes are then formally quality assured, which involves exercises including speaking with staff and conducting risk assessments.
"Those that have got through the process understand child sexual exploitation practices, and multi-agency working," the council's quality assurance manager Sharon Deacon says.
"It is very rigorous and robust as these young people present their own unique challenges."
If the local authority needs a placement, there is an internal system to put out what Deacon describes as a "mini competition", outlining a need for a bed and the specific requirements such as a certain type of property, or location. The providers get a chance to view the request and set out what they can offer.
"We can see who has applied, and what price they have offered," Deacon says.
Badnall-Neill says that, as a result of the changes, providers have become increasingly responsive to the needs of young people, improving the council's understanding of the market.
The council found that the majority of young people requiring supported accommodation were classified as "high need", many of whom had mental health, offending, or substance misuse problems or were unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
"It's apparent that many young people are coming into care later due to homelessness or family breakdown," says Badnall-Neill. "They have often been known to children's services for some time and are coming in with higher needs than a younger person who has been in foster care for the past five years.
"We have found that providers have responded to that need and are setting up homes specifically to deal with those young people."
Deacon admits that when the providers were first informed of the council's intentions, many were sceptical that it would work, and were reluctant to get involved.
"Some of the providers we quality assured in the beginning failed," says Deacon. "We gave them time but they were still not up to scratch, so are no longer used."
An Ofsted inspection last year found that virtually all care leavers were in suitable accommodation, with bed and breakfast not having been used for the last four years.
It states: "The authority undertakes rigorous monitoring and quality assurance of accommodation. Staff in semi-independent living accommodation provide a range of opportunities for young people to socialise. Personal advisers take good action, at an early stage, to prevent tenancy breakdowns or find alternative places for the young people to live."