This week delivered a general election result that almost none of us thought possible. Not the pollsters. Nor the politicians. Not even us ‘hard working people’ from ‘up and down this country’ that mustered any enthusiasm to discuss the election. Perhaps my observation was like yours—universal apathy.
The news of a Conservative majority government is now ‘old’, such is the pace of our 24-hour media cycle, and by now we all know everyone else has quit their jobs. But what does this election result actually mean for providers of children’s services?
A year ago, the Department for Education (DfE) published what it called ‘open consultations’ which set out a vision for the liberalisation of the provision of care for looked after children and young people. This fit with the belief in some quarters that the then coalition government was hell-bent on the destruction of local government as we know it.
Yes, there were some local authorities in need of paring down, in my view (which I doubt is unique). The national deficit, we were told, was so huge that little, if anything, was left to realistically propose as a solution other than radical and painful cuts. When funding dries up, services stop, and when people stop receiving services they need, that’s discomforting at best, life threatening at worst.
The DfE, and its’ inspection body, Ofsted, is focusing specifically at fostering and adoption services, imposing guidelines and timescales on the recruitment, assessment and approval of prospective parents, be they temporary or permanent. That’s to increase awareness of the need to find more loving homes for vulnerable kids who need them. In the eighties, I was one of those, too.
Now, as a specialist recruiter of foster carers, who has worked with both local authority and independent sector providers for some years, this is my prediction for our future.
Local authorities that are already being compelled, through cuts in central government funding, to seek external provision of services of services that they can no longer provide sufficiently themselves, will find the pace of that agenda significantly accelerated.
I do not believe that the DfE has any further appetite for waiting around for this to happen at the evolutionary pace that it would if local authorities were left to their own devices. So, expect more targets. Expect more inspections. Expect more sanctions. And expect many more services to be tendered out.
Adoption family finding needs reform—fast.
Alongside this, it is both my hope and expectation that local authorities are to lose control of adoption family finding activity altogether. In my view, having worked inside local authority children’s services, this is both overdue and essential.
As a professional marketer, I believe that it makes far better sense to take adoption family finding out of local authorities and run the process nationally, in a much more coherent, targeted, and proactive manner.
The outcome can only be more children being claimed by families that desperately want them, who go on to develop a strong sense of personal identify and self esteem, and can become productive members of society themselves.
What will happen to local authority fostering services?
Those that don’t up their game, now, and persuasively so, should be tendered out, plain and simple. Those who believe that childcare services should only exist in the domain of the public sector (as I once did) will of course castigate the government.
Labour would (have been) accused of not standing up for those in need, and the Tories will most likely be accused of being heartless Hobbesian elitists that cared little for the working class anyway. Damned either way, one has to accept this as an inevitable hazard of any change of this kind.
And what about civic responsibility?
If you are not aware, it is worth pointing out some truths here, before decrying the actions of those tasked with sorting out the national deficit in one way or another.
The first is that local authority staff were given the opportunity to run their own services themselves, as staff-led mutuals, and given the relative luxury of protection from market competition for their first few years’ operation. And yet, take up has been slow, with Doncaster Children’s Trust providing a notable exception.
But the point is that local authority children’s services staff were long ago offered market-protected entrepreneurial opportunities. I saw this with my own eyes, as I worked at the time inside a local authority.
After this once-in-a-generation opportunity had been presented, a request for a show of hands from those interested in exploring the idea produced no response whatever. Following savings made through natural staff attrition, then in cuts to services, this more radical solution was simply ignored by a workforce that was perhaps afraid to try something new, or who simply hoped the problem would ‘go away’. It hasn’t. And it won’t.
Secondly, and I speak more as an adult care leaver here, than in my professional role as a recruiter of foster carers, I ask everyone not to forget that children come into care because they cannot live with their own biological families. The causes of that include emotional and physical neglect and abuse, as well as sexual abuse, and sometimes that abuse is so severe that it is life threatening, or murderous.
For all children who come into care, having experienced the abandonment of their own families, the psychological and emotional trauma is often significant, debilitating, and lifelong. Our welfare state, whilst imperfect, is actually, overall, reasonably effective—notwithstanding the sexual abuse scandal that remains unsettled but which is an issue for another post.
I mention this second point because, as someone who was thankfully rescued by social workers in the mid eighties, I want to remind readers that the vast majority of those, as well as today’s politicians actually have the best interests of children at heart—so let us not speak of these individuals with the same venom as the actual child abusers themselves.
In my childhood, and my later career, I have met not just some, but many social care professionals who truly inspire me with their passion, and their commitment to the cause of looked after children and young people. You are not recognised enough for the terribly difficult and complex work that you do, but I would like to do so now—thank you.
When did you last stick your neck out?
Thirdly, and this point I will keep brief as I’ve written more about this elsewhere, but let’s remember that we all share collective societal responsibility for the welfare and safety of our children. I myself have risked my personal safety when intervening in unacceptable child beatings in the street. I will continue to do so. Better that I get a thump than a little boy or girl.
So before we bemoan this week’s election result, let’s reflect upon the moral responsibility that each of us has to contribute towards child protection. Social workers aren’t psychic. They cannot magically know when abuse is taking place and take decisive action there and then.
Social workers don’t see kids in classrooms. Teachers do. Social workers don’t see kids being mistreated, or worse, in the home, or other places out of public view, but often other adults do, and in my view those that do, but remain silent, share culpability for the abuse.
What lies ahead for independent fostering providers?
For independent fostering providers, now is the time to take a long hard look at your own foster carer attraction and recruitment strategies. It’s a simple equation—those IFPs that can provide care placement sufficiency are the ones that receive more referrals.
My expectation is that we will see dramatic market consolidation as fostering agencies that can offer economies of scale of sufficient appeal to the average local authority finance director who needs to save a hypothetical £70 million by 2018 are those that make it onto framework agreements, purchasing consortia, and preferred provider lists.
I finish with a bold prediction, but so much has taken place in recent times that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable, even laughable. My vision for the future of the sector is that by the General Election of 2020, I expect there to be no more than 20% of local authorities providing an in house fostering service, and for IFPs, I expect to see a consolidation and reduction in the number of individual providers by over 50%.
Now is not a time to sit on our hands.