The NAO said the number of children with more than one care placement has stayed the same since 2009. Picture: Arlen Connelly
A study by the NAO, which scrutinises public spending on behalf of parliament, found that despite the Department for Education (DfE) having an objective of improving placement stability, at the end of March 2013, 34 per cent of children in care had more than one placement during the year, the same proportion as in 2009.
Meanwhile, 14 per cent of foster children and 34 per cent of those in residential care were placed more than 20 miles from home – a proportion that has also not improved in the last four years.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said too many children taken into care are not getting the right placement first time.
“If their complex and challenging learning and development needs are not correctly assessed and tackled, the result is likely to be significant long-term detriment to the children themselves as well as cost to society,” he added.
“No progress has been made in the last four years.
“If the Department for Education is to break this pattern, then it needs to use its new Innovation Programme to understand what works, especially in terms of early intervention.”
The Department for Education has refuted the NAO’s assertion that outcomes have not improved, claiming that the majority of first placements for children are “emergency placements” and the proportion of children with two or more placements is far lower, at 11 per cent.
Children’s minister Edward Timpson described the NAO’s analysis as “fundamentally flawed and misleading”.
“I will always be the first to say that more needs to be done but this report ignores the very real progress that has been made in transforming the life chances of children in care,” he added.
“It is a fact that since 2010, children in care are doing better at school and absences from school have decreased.
“Foster children can also now stay at home until the age of 21, and this year a record number of children found places in stable, loving homes through adoption.”
Enver Solomon, director of evidence and impact at the National Children’s Bureau, said that while his organisation welcomes the fact the government has sought to tackle issues such as the stability of placements, the quality of residential care, and support for care leavers, there is “plenty of room for further improvement”.
“Central and local government must ensure that those planning services have the evidence, knowledge and capacity to meet the needs of every child in care, and are subject to effective oversight,” he added.
Matthew Horton, head of family placement at Barnardo’s, said the needs of children, rather than cost, should be of paramount importance in finding placements for children in care.
“Local authorities need to consider the long-term costs to society of a child being in the wrong placement or moved unnecessarily, which can result in persistent problems for children as they grow up,” he added.
“Being in care can be a transformative experience for some children but it is essential that they are given the right placement and are protected from unnecessary moves.
“Without this, these children, many of whom have been neglected or abused, are missing out on the care and stability they so desperately need.”
The report also found that:
- Demand for care is increasing with 68,110 children in care at the end of March 2013, an increase of two per cent on March 2012 and an 18 per cent increase compared with March 2000.
- Unless their needs are correctly assessed and met effectively, there are significant long-term costs of children not getting the right care. In 2013, 34 per cent of all care leavers were not in education, employment or training at 19 compared with 15.5 per cent of 18-year-olds in the general population.
- Local authorities are finding it harder to assess the needs of children in care, partly due to financial pressures.
- Because of changes in the inspection regime, the DfE does not know if standards in foster agencies and residential homes are genuinely improving or worsening.
Annie Hudson, chief executive of the College of Social Work, said it must be ensured that the “whole system” works for children.
“Social workers undoubtedly have a critical role, but equally other agencies such as health, schools and the police are integral to helping children in care to have fulfilling and successful lives,” she said.