Launching the stocktake, minister for vulnerable children and families Edward Timpson said it would "look at how placements are made, and the skills and expertise that foster carers require to look after the diverse needs of children".
In addition, Timpson said the process will look at "market opportunities", and suggested there may be potential for introducing a regional commissioning system, similar to regional adoption consortia developed over the past two years.
Since the minister's announcement, there has been little detail on the remit nor timescales for the stocktake.
The Department for Education says it is undertaking a thorough analysis of available data and statistics and has commissioned a review of all the available evidence relating to foster care.
Both these pieces of work will be completed early this year, with further information, including the launch for a call for evidence, to be published soon.
Ofsted data on fostering in England shows that in 2013/14, there were 51,315 children in foster care placements. This rose slightly to 51,590 in 2014/15. The latest Ofsted data, published last month, shows there was a further small rise in 2015/16 to 51,805. This is slightly lower than the level reported by the Department for Education's annual social care statistics (51,850).
Around two-thirds of these children are placed with local authority foster carers, with the remainder living in placements provided by voluntary and private sector fostering agencies (see graphics).
Over the same period, the number of approved fostering places and households has also risen slightly. As of 31 March 2016, there were 83,175 fostering places in 44,625 households compared with 81,190 places in 42,490 households in 2013/14.
The figures suggest there is significant spare capacity in the fostering system. However, campaigners have long warned of a shortage of foster carers with the right skills to care for the more complex needs of children now coming into care, as well as sibling groups (See ADCS view).
Carer recruitment and retention
Campaigners estimate there is a shortage of up to 8,000 foster carers each year. The Ofsted data shows an across-the-board decline in the number of initial enquiries, applications and approvals of foster carers in 2015/16. Of particular concern is foster carer applications plummeting by one-third from 16,920 to 11,460 over the past year. As a consequence, the number of applications completed fell from 12,795 in 2014/15 to 8,185 in 2015/16.
Despite this decline, more households registered than de-registered as foster carers over the past year.
The Fostering Network's State of the Nation 2016 survey of 2,500 foster carers found that just 55 per cent would recommend fostering to others, while a fifth said they planned to quit the role within five years. There is evidence to suggest a range of factors are contributing to foster carers' concerns. A third of respondents to The Fostering Network survey felt social workers did not treat them as an equal nor allow them to make decisions, many of them basic ones, about the lives of the children they care for.
New approaches are looking for ways to improve relations between social workers and foster carers. Aberlour Fostering's Head, Heart, Hands programme is training carers alongside social workers in pedagogy; while independent agency Match Foster Care has pioneered an approach that gives agency staff more responsibility for decision making (see practice examples).
In addition, the survey paints a deteriorating picture of foster carers' finances. Just 42 per cent of carers felt their allowance met the full cost of looking after fostered children - half the rate in 2014 - while three-quarters described their retainer fee as "could be better or poor".
The status of foster carers is one of the issues being considered by the recently launched inquiry into the state of fostering by the education select committee (See CoramBAAF expert view). Committee chair Neil Carmichael MP said there was "near unanimous recognition that working conditions and employment standards for foster carers need to improve".
"Many submissions pointed to a lack of financial and practical support for foster carers, with some, such as from the GMB Union, arguing for professionalisation and greater standardisation of working practices," he said. "But several emphasised the vocational aspect of the foster carer role and expressed concern that a focus on greater professionalisation would undermine the values of this approach."
The Fostering Network survey also found a third of foster carers had taken on children whose needs were beyond what they had been assessed as being able to handle. Of this group, half said they felt pressured to do this, while three quarters said the placement had been made without additional training and support.
A Freedom of Information request by Action for Children in 2015 found that nearly a quarter of fostered children had experienced two or more placements in a year. Many of these will have been planned moves in response to changes in circumstances or needs. However, The Fostering Network survey found that 49 per cent of foster carers reported placements ending when this was not in the child's best interests.
The Ofsted data shows 2,910 fostered children experienced 3,490 unplanned endings to a placement, three quarters of them with a local authority foster carer. The majority of placements (55 per cent) ended as a result of a foster carer's request, with one in five children moved within 24 hours of a decision being made to end a placement early. Initiatives such as The Fostering Network's Mockingbird programme, funded through the Children's Social Care Innovation Fund, have focused on finding ways to increase foster carers' support and resilience to reduce the risk of breakdown (See practice example).
Placement stability is a particular concern for the children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield. She told an all-party parliamentary group for children meeting last year that repeated changes in placement and social worker was harmful for looked-after children's trauma levels and education success. Longfield said her office will collect data from local authorities on the number of placement moves experienced by children in care and changes in social worker, with an index of findings published annually.
On education, Ofsted found 2,295 fostered children experienced at least one school move as a result of a placement change, 47 per cent of which were placed with independent fostering agencies (IFAs).
While research shows fostered children achieve better GCSE results than children in other forms of care, placement moves can have a significant impact on looked-after children's attainment. A 2015 study by the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education at the University of Oxford found each additional change of care placement after the age of 11 resulted in one-third of a grade lower at GCSE.
A key barometer of placement stability is instances of children going missing from foster care. Most children go missing to meet friends and family, usually for less than 24 hours. In 2015/16, 3,055 children went missing a total of 10,640 times, compared with 17,175 missing incidents involving 5,055 children in 2014/15. However, Ofsted says the fall is due to a change in how the data is collected.
Children and Families Act
Despite the lack of political attention for foster care, one change that has made a significant difference to fostered young people was the introduction through the Children and Families Act 2014 of a new duty to require councils to allow them to remain in a foster placement up to age 21 if they wished.
"Staying Put" arrangements were backed with £44m of DfE funding from 2014-17 to pay for the additional cost to councils of implementing the scheme. Ofsted data shows that of the 4,025 young people in foster care to turn 18 in 2015/16, 54 per cent remained living with their former carers three months after their 18th birthday, up from 49 per cent the previous year. The data also shows the number of young people remaining with their former carers at age 19 and 20 has also risen over the past three years (see graphics).
In addition to a number of measures to speed up the care process, the Children and Families Act amended the Children Act 1989 to make it easier for prospective adopters to foster children. The aim is to ensure that more children can live with their permanent carers at the earliest possible stage of the adoption process.
Independent fostering agencies
The number of children placed by IFAs rose faster in 2015/16 than the number placed by local authorities - three per cent and one per cent respectively, according to Ofsted data.
Latest published inspection data shows there were 297 IFAs operating in England as of March 2016, of which 79 per cent were run by the private sector and 21 per cent by voluntary providers.
As of March 2016, Ofsted had inspected 277 of the 297 active IFAs and found "a very positive" picture, with 14 per cent rated "outstanding", 71 per cent "good", 14 per cent "requires improvement" and one per cent "inadequate". IFAs also tend to score better in the amount of support they provide to foster carers.
However, IFAs have come under scrutiny for the inducements paid to foster carers to sign with them, and millions in profits some of them make from placement fees. Both issues are to be investigated by the education select committee inquiry, with the Association of Directors of Children's Services calling for action (See ADCS view).
How the fostering stocktake addresses some of these key challenges will be crucial in shaping foster care over the coming years. Ensuring children are well matched to foster carers with the correct skills to meet their needs is the key concern.
With the numbers of children coming into care rising and adoptions declining, demand for foster care looks set to remain high.
ADCS view: Treatment for system's ‘beating heart'
By Alison Michalska, vice president, Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), and corporate director of children and adults, Nottingham City Council
The overwhelming majority of children and young people in care live with foster families. The love and support offered by carers can be transformational to the health, wellbeing, and future prospects of the children in their care. A significant body of evidence clearly shows that the care system has a protective factor. That is why it is vital that it is properly supported and funded in the future. It's time for us to show our appreciation for the efforts of the beating heart of our care system.
Last summer, the government announced its intention to undertake a fostering stocktake. We don't know much about its remit, timescales or the format this exercise will take. However, this review offers an opportunity to tackle the lazy narrative surrounding the care system and to recognise the fantastic contribution foster carers make to individual children's lives and to wider society. It is important that care-experienced children and young people are consulted about their experiences from the outset to inform the output of this process, including the development of plans to address any areas of weakness.
The rising numbers of children in care and an estimated shortfall of 7,500 foster carers across the country has been compounded by the government's ongoing austerity policies. These mounting pressures have resulted in increased competition for new recruits between different local authorities and with independent fostering agencies (IFAs) too. A ban on profiting from the provision of child protection services has been upheld by the government yet a handful of IFAs continue to operate on a for-profit basis. We hope the stocktake will consider if it is appropriate for huge surpluses to be generated from the care of vulnerable children and young people and then passed onto shareholders. It is our belief that these funds should be reinvested into improving outcomes for children and used to reward their care-givers with the recognition and support they truly deserve. The provision of high-quality training is something local authorities are committed to but the impact of austerity and budget cuts cannot be underestimated.
The Association of Directors of Children's Services stands ready to assist with the stocktake, to collate the views of our members working in local authorities across the country and to facilitate the sharing of children and young people's thoughts with the review team. The sufficiency of foster care placements, or lack thereof, must be within view along with the government's role in finding a long-term solution. I can't think of a director of children's services in the country who isn't struggling to recruit foster carers, a national campaign is an obvious quick-win. This shortage of foster carers underpins some significant challenges that local and central government is grappling with, including how best to meet the needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, reducing the numbers of children placed out of area, driving up the attainment of children living in care, reducing the numbers of missing episodes and more. These things must be in view as part of the national stocktake.
Expert view: We are out of touch with fostered children's needs
By John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development, CoramBAAF
If it were not for children in care, there would not be a foster care system. The assumption is that children drive the system - their needs, development, safety and welfare - both in the short and longer term. But there is much to suggest that we really struggle with what this means from a child's point of view.
The Department for Education has announced a review they call a "fostering stocktake". We continue to implement the statutory concept of "corporate parenting" and part of the service is referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. From a child's point of view, they might ask: "Are you my mummy and daddy?" "Do you love me?" or say, "I'm scared". This suggests a serious divergence in the preoccupations of those responsible for delivering foster care services and those of children who cannot live in their families and above all need a family they can experience as "their own".
It is important not to reinforce a perspective that the foster care system is failing. The framework for foster care services has developed significantly over the years, incorporating specialist interventions and innovations, reducing placement moves, the "sufficiency duty", the importance of education and health, "delegated authority", and "staying put" rights. Many children make significant progress and do much better than those who return home. But the impact on the child of the question: "Who is my family?" remains.
At its most basic, separation from parents and family is likely to stir up profound feelings of loss and anxiety. Where abuse and neglect are a part of this, it is likely to be compounded by fear and a breakdown in basic trust. Creating a new family for the child means rebuilding something that has broken but, at the same time, lives on in the child's mind and experience. Rebuilding a family life through foster care means that the child has to "hold" both families in mind and try to make sense of what that means.
From a foster carer's perspective this means addressing challenging questions. They are recruited and approved to be a "professional" but what does this mean? Parenting and family life are typically associated with loving the child. Parents experience children as "one of their own". Struggling to put the child before all else is common. Embedding the child in culture, religion and language is fundamental. Making choices, decisions and mistakes are core to being family. This is family life as it is lived, day in, day out.
Recruitment, preparation, assessment and support and retention are hugely influenced by all of this. The recent research on compassion fatigue could not be more timely. But the sector's preoccupations are elsewhere - cost, commissioning, stocktakes. The unbearable silence for the child is what matters the most. And that silence needs to end.