If you were busy Maundy Thursday you might have missed the publication of Ofsted’s latest annual statistics on fostering in England, covering the year 2016-17. There are some figures being reported for the first time and we have picked out and discussed some of the “highlights”.
The latest headline fostering figure (you may not be surprised to learn) is that the number of approved fostering households continues to fall. More alarming though is the warning from Ofsted that, had it not been for the 11% rise in friends and family (or connected persons) carers the fall in the number of foster carers during 2016-17 would have been the largest in recent years. While the rise in the number of looked after children living with friends and family is positive and in line with government policy in a bid to minimise disruption for children coming into care, Ofsted nevertheless warns that if the decrease in mainstream fostering continues, “there is a risk that the sector will reach a point where there are not enough suitable places available”. Indeed, if you look at the number of households approved more than half were family and friends households 4,775 compared with 4,375 mainstream fostering households approved. “Whichever way you cut it, the figures for 2016-2017 continue a steady – if slow – downward trend of available and suitable foster carers in England,” writes Matthew Brazier, Ofsted’s specialist adviser for looked after children. Overall, there were 8,275 de-registrations in 2016–17, with the majority (73%) in the local authority sector (see image). On average households were approved for 4.1 years until deregistration – although a significant number do go and foster with another agency or fostering service.
‘Unavailable’ fostering places
In some apparent good news the number of approved fostering “places” has risen since last year – due to a slight increase in the number of approved places per household. But, and it is a big but, the proportion that were “not available” increased at a faster rate to 15,520 – which meant that fewer places were available overall – in fact the number dropped by 3%. So, what does “not available” mean? This data has been collated by Ofsted for the first time. In around a quarter of cases carers were unavailable as they were taking a break between placements or pending retirement. However, in about 4% of cases the unavailability was due to carers being investigated: by my calculation, as of 31 March 2017 alone 621 places were unavailable because foster carers were under investigation. Over the entirety of the year, there were 2,525 allegations made against foster carers and just under two thirds of these were made by fostered children – a figure that is up by 7% on the previous year.
Short breaks for children with disabilities
Short breaks is an area of fostering that we don’t write about enough on This Week in Fostering. Also called Family Link this is a service whereby a child with a disability has the opportunity to receive care from a family trained by the fostering service, but still lives at home the rest of the time. It is a lifeline for many families and its provision is part of a statutory requirement on local authorities to support certain families with children with disabilities. Yet the number of short breaks carers has plummeted. As at 31 March 2017, there were 1,270 households that exclusively provided short breaks, a fall of over 30% from 1,850 in 2016 – and less than half the 2,725 that were providing short breaks in March 2013. By contrast in 2016-17 just 170 short break households were approved.
Ofsted paints a chequered picture around recruitment. On the plus side there was a 12% increase in the number of initial enquiries about fostering – 114,425 in 2016–17. But this was driven by an increase in enquiries to independent fostering providers, with the number of local authority (LA) enquiries falling by 1%. However, 18% of initial enquiries in the LA sector converted to applications compared with just 8% in IFAs. And the number of applications that were converted to approvals dropped from 57% to 49%. With the reduced conversion rate driven by a large decrease in LA approvals, “For the first time, IFAs approved a larger proportion of applications than LAs,” Ofsted noted.
Unplanned Endings and Education
A total of 1,255 children experienced unplanned endings to their fostering placements at the request of their carers while 1,115 children experienced unplanned placement endings due to other reasons. Of the total number, 525 children were moved within 24 hours of the decision to end the placement being made. Ofsted also makes a link between children who experience unplanned endings and higher than average persistent school absence – 13% compared with 5% of children who had no unplanned endings.The percentage of children moving school (or other education) was down 10% – although 2,070 children were still affected. And, rather appallingly, 2,155 children had no educational arrangements during the year.
A lower proportion of carers than children and young people are from minority ethnic backgrounds. The proportion of newly approved carers from minority ethnic backgrounds this year was higher than the proportion of already approved carers from these backgrounds, “which is an encouraging sign that agencies have had some success in recruiting from a wider range of backgrounds,” Ofsted noted. In the LA sector, 13% of newly approved carers were from minority ethnic groups compared with 24% in IFAs.
In December the Education Select Committee’s report placed a heavy focus on the number of siblings that were not placed together and of the 12,465 siblings assessed and entering care 1,960 from 655 sibling groups were not placed according to the to the proposed care plan following the assessment. It would be reasonable to assume (although not explicit from the data) that a large number of these 1,960 siblings were not placed together even though the assessment recommended that they should be – perhaps because a fostering household able to accept siblings was not available in the right location.
So that is a brief summary – and if you are still hungry for more facts and figures then the government’s latest annual statistics on children in care and education was also published the same day – you can catch up with some of the detail on our Facebook page over the next few days.