This opinion article was written by Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England.
The building blocks of a good childhood haven’t changed: secure relationships, a decent home and inspiring schools. Sadly, for too many children those vital ingredients are missing.
One in ten of all children in England has needed a social worker in the past six years, the overwhelming majority of these because they were being harmed, neglected or not having their basic care needs met. And over the last decade, the number of children growing up in care in England has increased. In March 2018 there were over 75,000 looked after children — up 4% on the previous year.
As Children’s Commissioner for England, I have a particular responsibility for these children. Separated from their parents and already with a tough start in life, their biggest ask of us is that they are given the support and stability they need to build a positive future for themselves.
Thankfully, for many children in care, that stability exists. They live permanently with a loving foster family, stay at the same good school and have a social worker with whom they form and keep an important relationship. But many thousands of others have too much change — moving from home to home, chopping and changing schools, seeing different social workers drift in and out of their lives.
That is why my office created the Stability Index in 2017, an annual measure of changes in home, school and social worker for children in care. It helps us to identify where there are problems and encourage local authorities and Government to tackle them to improve stability in the system.
We know that this instability can hamper the life chances of children growing up in care, making them even more vulnerable. In the worst cases, this can lead to criminal or sexual exploitation. Unfortunately, there are always those who are good at spotting and manipulating the most vulnerable children, as we have seen with the growth of the “county lines” problem and the tragic murders of young people caught up in gang violence.
We know too that over the last five years, the overall profile of these children in care has changed dramatically, driven by a growing share of older children and teenage care entrants, who have more complex (and as a result often more expensive) needs. The number of teenagers aged 13 or over growing up in care in England rose by 21% between 2012/13 and 2017/18, while the number of 0-5 year olds fell by 15%. As a result, nearly 1 in 4 children in care — 23% — are aged 16 or over, while a further 2 in 5 are aged 10-15.
Breakdown in the percentage change of Looked After Children (LAC) between 2013 and 2018. There is a steep increase in the number of children aged 6 and above going into care, while younger children are less likely to go into care today than in 2013. Source: the children’s commissioner stability index 2019.
These teenage children entering the care system are often particularly vulnerable. They are significantly more likely to have experienced child sexual exploitation (6 times more likely), to have gone missing from home (7 times more likely), to have been involved in gangs (5 times more likely), trafficking (12 times more likely) and be misusing drugs (4 times more likely) compared to other children in care.
Too often we are spending vast sums of money playing catch-up, instead of smaller amounts of money earlier on to tackle problems
They also experience much higher levels of instability: they are around 80% more likely (compared to the national average) to have two or more changes of home within a year. Inevitably many local authorities are buckling under the rising cost of the specialist care needed for this growing group of children. In one local authority alone, we found that 20% of the entire children’s services budget is being spent on just ten children.
Lifting 500,000 families
Tackling this instability and changing the system is an urgent task.
Children need support from before birth and throughout childhood. We need a national 10-year plan from the top of Government which addresses immediate gaps in services to protect children from significant harm. It must rebuild services for children and families with wider needs. This will cost billions of pounds a year to fix — but it will save money in the long term.
We have to put family support at the heart of children’s social care, with an expansion of the Troubled Families Programme to 500,000 households, and an outcomes framework built more around children. This programme has had positive results in turning around the lives of vulnerable families, and I want to see it delivered through an extended network of family support centres in the most deprived areas, building on existing children’s centres.
At present, there are not always enough of the right kinds of homes for children in care
I also want to see more help for children who need mental health support. The Government’s current plans for mental health counsellors in schools need to be delivered faster and more widely and I want to see a counsellor in every secondary school in England. There also needs to be adequate funding for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, including greater pre-statutory support.
There is a universal case for this kind of early help.
Too often we are spending vast sums of money playing catch-up, instead of smaller amounts of money earlier on to tackle problems. Health and education professional tell me consistently that when early help programmes are cut, the consequences are a rise in more complex and more expensive problems further down the line.
Other countries dealing with the same childhood vulnerabilities around mental health, domestic abuse in the home, parents who are struggling to cope financially and emotionally can look to UK programmes like Sure Start or the Troubled Families Programme which have helped many families to change to a more positive direction.
No replacement for better funding
We could also do more to keep vulnerable teenagers in care safe by encouraging school facilities to stay open during evenings and weekends and school holidays to provide a range of activities from sports to arts, drama to digital citizenship; and high-quality youth support.
I also want to see a new cadre of high-quality youth workers, trained along the lines of the Teach First and Frontline schemes, which train teachers and social workers, and would cost around £250m ($308m). This would train and employ 2,000-3,000 new youth workers. This investment would provide the basic community infrastructure to work with children and families, including those in care. Funding could incentivise collaboration: a children’s centre in a primary school enhances the consistency of the support provided to the child and connects parents to schools.
At present, there are not always enough of the right kinds of homes for children in care, including adoption, fostering and children’s homes, in the right areas. More coordination is needed from the National Stability Forum — the body set up by the UK Government to provide the Department for Education with advice and leadership at national and local level to promote stability, better life chances and outcomes for children in care — to oversee local sufficiency plans and strengthen national sufficiency guidance.
Schools and school leaders should be held to account for the extent to which they give children in care priority access for school places. This would help to ensure that as many children in care as possible attend schools judged “Good” or “Outstanding”.
All of these measures, and more, could do much to help the life chances of those highly vulnerable teenagers going into care. Ultimately though, our politicians must decide whether these are priorities for them, and whether or not they will they allow more generations of vulnerable children in care grow up without with the advantages and opportunities they expect for their own children. — Anne Longfield
(Picture credit: Unsplash)