Ensuring care leaver provisions deliver

Leaving care adviser Mark Riddell explains how local authorities can strengthen their local offers by engaging with key partner agencies.

Children's minister Nadhim Zahawi recently announced the Care Leaver Covenant will be launched this autumn.

Making the announcement at the Association of Directors of Children's Services annual conference, he said the covenant is "a pledge from organisations across our society, in which they make concrete commitments to help improve outcomes for care leavers".

The covenant is one of the measures in the Children and Social Work Act (see "Reforms to council leaving care services", below).

Alongside advising the minister on national policy on care leavers, my role involves supporting all local authorities to implement the new care leaver provisions in the Act and individual councils that require advice.

Five months on from the care leaver provisions in the Act being introduced, here are some of the key emerging issues councils need to consider.

Understanding the key principle of the Act

If a local authority is reviewing or reshaping their services, then they need to apply one basic principle: would this be good enough for my child?

If senior officers, lead members and key partner agencies take that as their starting point, they will find that discussions and decisions take on a whole new meaning.

For example, during a recent visit to a local authority, members of the leaving care team and care leavers themselves described an emergency accommodation option as poor, unhygienic and at times unsafe.

What became apparent was that the team knew this about the service and were unhappy placing care leavers at the setting, but it was all the authority had to offer.

In the feedback to the local authority, I then challenged the chief executive, the leader and the senior officers by asking them: "Would you place your child in that type of situation?" The answer was of course "no".

What followed was an immediate visit by commissioners from the local authority, a rapid review of accommodation options for care leavers and an ambition was set that emergency accommodation would be the last resort and only used in crisis situations.

The housing provider is now a member of the corporate parenting board.

Such an approach illustrates what can be done and many of the authorities I have visited are introducing improvements as a result of it.

An enhanced local and national offer

Local authorities are expected under the new duties to consult and publish their local offer to care leavers by the end of the year.

While I am visiting local authorities throughout the country, a number of common themes are emerging around the membership of corporate parenting boards and how there is an absence of key partner agencies such as Jobcentre Plus (JCP), health services, youth offending teams, probation, adult social care and housing.

This is crucial when developing the local offer so that everyone knows what each agency is offering, and especially important so that care leavers can make informed choices and know their rights and entitlements.

For example, if JCP is a member of the board, its offer to care leavers should be agreed by the board.

Through local protocols, many local authorities and JCP offices have reduced benefit sanctions for care leavers; with JCP only applying a sanction following a discussion with the leaving care team.

This means that in most cases, care leavers get targeted support during a sanction and that the lengthy process of appeals is no longer necessary. It also illustrates how an authority's local offer can be improved by consulting with key partner agencies.

Examples like this are excellent, but we need more consistency across the country - at the moment, it is determined locally so if a care leaver moves area, the response they get is likely to be different on each occasion, adding greater confusion and less engagement with agencies.

We need all Department for Work and Pensions offices and leaving care teams to be absolutely clear of each agencies' offer so that we have a consistent approach.

Looking beyond the role of councils

The new legislation that came into force in April is a real opportunity to share resources, good practice and drive improvement in the quality of leaving care services. However, local authorities cannot do it all on their own.

The Care Leavers Covenant will be crucial in galvanising the efforts of a host of organisations - from the public, private and voluntary sectors - to show their commitment to care leavers.

Work to engage the private and voluntary sectors is being led by Spectra First, which has been commissioned by the DfE to undertake this piece of work.

In addition, the department is leading on the work to identify how other government departments can improve their offer to care leavers.

Taking part in the internship scheme

One example of how all departments can support care leavers is to take part in the care leaver internship scheme, which provides 12-month paid internships in the civil service.

This year, six government departments are participating, offering 17 internships across Whitehall, ranging from work in the minister's office to being part of a team developing policies that affect care leavers and other vulnerable groups.

This is a really exciting scheme and I would want this type of approach to be replicated in local authorities where they could ring-fence apprenticeships for care leavers, offer taster sessions or work experience during term times, or provide full-time employment opportunities.

The new duties are beginning to change cultures within organisations, local offers are being developed with partner agencies and the extended personal adviser support to care leavers up to 25 years will make a huge difference to the lives of care leavers.

I know this will take time, but I am confident that change will come.

  • By Mark Riddell, national leaving care implementation adviser, Department for Education

Reforms to council leaving care services

The Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced a number of duties for councils. These include:

  • Outlining care leaver entitlements through a "local offer" up to 25
  • Extending personal advisers' role to support care leavers up to 25
  • Ensuring looked-after children pathway plans extend beyond leaving care
  • Applying good corporate parent responsibilities across all departments
  • Consulting with other public bodies about the support they can provide

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