In the first indication of the Department for Education's work with the residential sector, data was published last month on the use of children's homes across England, which revealed that nearly 30 per cent of children in residential care have had at least six previous placements.
Alongside this, a newsletter for the residential sector was launched last week, in which children's minister Tim Loughton said he appreciated the importance of children's homes, but also recognised challenges faced by the sector.
Leading figures in the residential sector said that while this is a welcome first step, "ineffective" commissioning coupled with a lack of support for providers is damaging quality and growth in the sector.
Lack of strategy
Jonathan Stanley, former manager of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, who is now providing policy and practice support to the Independent Children's Homes Association (ICHA), said: "The situation is ineffective; there is a lack of strategy nationally, regionally and locally. There is great variation in the work of local authorities to meet their sufficiency and diversity duty."
He added that the initial release of raw data meant little without interpretation. "In order to make grounded policy, we need better data than is currently provided, which is not audited or verified for consistency. The government needs to take a lead and give some distinction that links need to placement types."
Roy Williamson, executive officer for ICHA, said overcoming dwindling referrals and decreasing fees will require a "more equal relationship" between commissioners and providers. "We would like some negotiation over future planning, where we work with commissioners to provide services in geographical locations that are not available at the moment," he said. "If government data is supporting the notion that there are gaps in services, then we should be working on that, rather than just being dictated to about what services to provide and how much we charge."
Former Ofsted inspector Angela Gunning, who now works as a residential care worker and a consultant for providers, said support for staff must be improved. "One of the biggest challenges for the sector is the workforce," she said. "The salary is just above minimum wage, which shows the lack of value in our society that is placed on residential care work."
Gunning's experience in inspection has also led her to believe there should be greater emphasis on supporting providers to self-evaluate.
"When I first began working as a care inspector in 2002, one of my main tasks was to supply advice and guidance to residential services to improve quality and meet national minimum standards," she said. "But over the past couple of years, there has been a shift away from providing advice and more focus on assessing whether a provider meets the National Minimum Standards or not.
"The government has said residential care is a priority and it is committed to raising the quality. It now needs to tell us how it intends to help providers do this."
Number of previous placements of children in residential care
- One 24%
- Six or more 29%
- Four to five 16%
- Two 18%
- Three 13%
Source: Department for Education