Less than three weeks ago the Sun missed an opportunity to dig into the real causes of the crisis in funding for services for children in care, opting instead for sensationalist headlines while using poor evidence.

Today the Guardian similarly produced an article that fails our most vulnerable children because it fails to understand the picture or to address the fundamental issues.

“Vulnerable children treated ‘like cattle’ in care home system” is another depressing litany of cobbled together anecdotes, often about discrete and unrelated facts, and also includes a now-familiar moralistic attack on the private sector, allied to a damning assessment of local authority practice.

Almost all of my response to the Sun article (see “Time to stop the division”) applies equally to the Guardian article. I’m distressed that no part of the independent press is able to champion the cause of looked after children effectively.

The real issues are about the stand-off in funding clarity between central and local government and the failings of stressed councils to commission the markets they need, while the various Government bodies charged with improving the situation have yet to have an impact.

There is real substance available in those issues for a critical press to get its teeth into, and it should rightly also seek to properly understand and to challenge the effectiveness of the respective roles of the private sector, the public sector and others. The interests of looked after children would be far better served by addressing these issues and to do so using an increasingly sophisticated evidence base and studies.

As lobbying hits full speed ahead of the next budget, including an open letter to Downing Street this week from 120 children’s charities and others we unfortunately also saw a wholly unhelpful article about fostering in the Sun.

Misinformed, using discredited figures, and unhelpful, nay damaging, to the very children and families it seeks to represent.

When what is needed is unity, partnership and cooperation in the sector what we get are childish over-simplifications. Is this further evidence of the death of good campaigning journalism on behalf of the most vulnerable and under-represented in our society?

The Sun piece fails to properly evidence the claims it makes, and in using discredited figures misses a huge opportunity. There is in fact evidence available, which when forensically analysed shows why private sector investors have been attracted to fostering above other sectors, but the Sun fails to seek or use that information.

What the evidence does show is that the commissioning and control of the markets that supply services is very weak. The Local Authorities who are charged with both a statutory duty to care for looked after children but also with commissioning of the supplier marketplace have increasingly struggled with increasing demand, shortage of supply, the sheer complexity and challenge of the task of fitting their activities into inappropriate procurement forms (sometimes determined by EU law), and a paucity of funding to promote regional and cross-authority work.

Dedicated and stretched local authorities are calling for more funding to match the demand but regularly experience pushback from Government and Ministers because articles like this one in the Sun reinforce the Centre’s view that local authorities aren’t spending money they already have efficiently enough.

So a real catch-22.

One we have to break through.

We can start by not supporting this sort of unintelligent approach that simply sets people in the sector against one another. Instead of being the best, most adult, shared corporate parents for the nation’s children in care it characterises us as being akin to bickering and separated parents. We need to come together from all sides of the sector, demonstrate how we can work together to efficiently and effectively use current funding, and have one voice in calling for more funding where it is needed.

We await action from the bodies that could be tackling the commissioning and market challenges. The DfE Innovation Programme, The What Works Centre, The Residential Care Leadership Board, and the newly proposed National Stability Forum have yet to seriously grapple with the implications of markets consolidating under Private Equity influence, and the implications of fragmented purchasing of services by local authorities.

There are solutions, some have already been evidenced to work, but it will take the will and resources and effort to realise them.

Andrew Rome
25 October 2018

A new article has been published on the Children and Young People Now website, with a section by Andrew Rome of Revolution Consulting.

Commissioning Care: Policy Context – click here to view.