Post-16 framework provides pointers for national scheme

Joanne Parkes
Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Hertfordshire's care commissioners for looked-after children are at the forefront of work to boost quality assurance at unregulated settings used for children aged 16 and 17.

The framework covers a flexible range of semi-independent accommodation options to meet young people’s changing needs. Picture: Bernat/Adobe Stock
The framework covers a flexible range of semi-independent accommodation options to meet young people’s changing needs. Picture: Bernat/Adobe Stock

Hertfordshire County Council commissioning framework for post-16 care set to be adopted by cross-regional consortium

Council put in place its own inspection regime for unregulated settings ahead of possible Ofsted-led national system

Commissioning lead in Hertfordshire aspires to shape a national contracts and monitoring system for the sector

ACTION

Hertfordshire's care commissioners for looked-after children are at the forefront of work to boost quality assurance at unregulated settings used for children aged 16 and 17.

These have been increasingly relied upon for care placements by cash-strapped councils across England, but media coverage of the issue in 2019 suggested such placements could be leaving children vulnerable to gangs.

The media spotlight prompted the government to launch a consultation on the use of unregulated settings and earlier this year it announced a ban on their use for under-16s, to come into force later this year.

The Department for Education states that an Ofsted-led system will regulate use of the provision for 16- and 17-year-olds, covering around 6,000 young people nationally (compared with around 600 under-16s according to 2018/19 data).

Having launched a commissioning framework in 2016 that would enable it to get a grip on standards within this area of provision, Hertfordshire County Council now considers itself ahead of the game.

Lynn Knowles, the council's head of commissioning (children looked after and safeguarding), expects the county's approach to be adopted by all 34 partner councils in the East and South of England, who make up the Hertfordshire-led Children's Cross Regional Arrangements Group (CCRAG).

The official sign up would build on an existing joint approach to commissioning residential care and residential special schools by CCRAG.

Partners have received the post-16 document, which they can adopt or adapt for their own use, and Knowles says: “It is likely it will form the basis of a formal unified approach in 2021.”

Meanwhile, Hertfordshire is helping to map good practice and develop standards for a Local Government Association-funded project to develop a national approach for such provision.

Knowles adds: “The documents aim to include potential national standards proposed by the DfE in its recent consultation on unregulated provision.

“We believe the framework in Hertfordshire achieves the right level of quality provision to be used in a national context.”

Post-16 framework

Hertfordshire has been operating a commissioning framework for young people aged over 16 since 2016.

This came after statutory guidance under the Children Act 1989 was published in 2015, detailing how local authorities should ensure children's needs are best met in unregulated settings.

Knowles explains that before 2015, the county council procured services from a range of providers on a spot purchase basis outside of any tendered arrangement.

It first moved to commission a variety of quality services with set price bands, she says, adding that the current version, updated in 2019 and extendable to 2023, includes a wider range of services and some of these are block-booked to ensure there is always sufficient capacity.

The framework covers semi-independent accommodation – a range of accommodation in group-living and solo settings where the support provided is flexible to meet the young person's evolving needs; practice flats, which include a step-down service during the last few months they are in care and solo accommodation with a light touch, with support reducing over the final weeks; and, specialist accommodation for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC).

Compared with the 2015 framework, the potential saving on each placement is 15-25 per cent, she states, but still offers a “fair price” to providers.

Knowles says: “Providers are happy with the arrangements in place and we have grown the number of providers on the framework since the first one was developed.

“There is a reduction in previous average costs across all provision, but with high expectations for improved performance.”

Quality assurance

Knowles describes the tender process as “rigorous” and she explains that all framework providers have a full compliance visit at the start of the contract and are subject to health and safety property checks ahead of placements.

“Annual health and safety checks are carried out by our commissioning team as well as annual checks on all providers to ensure contractual obligations are met,” she says.

This includes safe staffing checks covering DBS, training and references. The inspection also looks at visitor policies, record-keeping and security.

Hertfordshire's safeguarding policies and procedures must also be followed and young commissioners or members of the county's Children in Care Council attend some visits to speak to young residents about their experiences.

“Procedures are in place to ensure that any issues arising in the interim are dealt with in a timely manner through the use of meetings, action plans and risk assessments where appropriate,” adds Knowles.

“There is a clear notifications policy in place where providers must notify the social worker and commissioning team of any significant events arising.

“If concerns arise, we will meet with the provider, visit the property and discuss it and where necessary an action plan will be put in place with timescales for rectifying any shortfalls.

“Semi-independent providers are not subject to external inspections by a regulatory body such as Ofsted but we believe that we have internal mechanisms in place to robustly monitor the quality of service delivery and ensure young people receive the highest quality support in a safe environment.”

Jayne Wainwright, operations manager at residential care provider Caretech, which supports between 18 and 22 young people under the Hertfordshire framework, describes the council as “very prescriptive right from the tender”.

Expectations of providers are increasingly high, with more time devoted to quality control.

Although on the one hand, the care has become more expensive to provide, Wainwright welcomes the system.

She says: “It does give us more work, but it's made the expectation clearer and we know what we're commissioned to do.”

Block booking of four beds annually has also bridged the budget gap well, she explains.

Provider forums also offer a mechanism for feedback. Wainwright adds: “We get the opportunity to say what will work and budgetary constraints. We have to manage expectations on both sides.

“If the government decided to regulate, we're pretty far forward.”

IMPACT

Through the Hertfordshire County Council commissioning framework, 97 placements have been made since November 2019 delivering a potential cost saving of more than £400,000 over the period.

The majority of young people who access 16-plus provision are placed in Hertfordshire and “sufficiency is not an issue for us with this cohort”, adds Knowles.

Out of the 117 children placed, 93 are in Hertfordshire and 22 in local authorities bordering Hertfordshire.

Key performance indicators include measuring improvements in independent living skills, emotional wellbeing and ensuring young people are effectively safeguarded.

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