In media debate and policy discussions the care system is frequently described as failing young people. This negative view of care is strongly influenced by how the care system is evaluated, and how we report data on the outcomes experienced by looked after children. We currently compare children who have experienced deprivation and mistreatment with children who have experienced a stable and supported upbringing, and attribute poor educational attainment and mental health problems of children in care wholly to the care system. This is despite the fact that three quarters of children already suffer from emotional and behavioural problems at their point of entry to care, and 61 per cent come from a home environment of neglect and abuse.
Unlike in school statistics, where the government introduced “contextual value added” league tables to isolate the “school effect” from other variables over which schools have no control, care statistics are issued with no contextual or background information, or comparisons with other vulnerable groups, to isolate the “care effect”. So the misconceptions are perpetuated. The failure to compare ‘like’ with ‘like’ unfairly stigmatises looked after children and the care system as a whole, and can make us overlook the fact that when the care system is used effectively it can be a powerful tool for improving the lives of vulnerable children and young people.
However, this is not to say that there is not room for improvement. In Loco Parentis, a new report published by Demos today, looks beneath the surface of these assumptions, and investigates the factors that are known to be associated with positive experiences of care for children and young people. These include a decisive entry to care, stable and high quality placements, and a supported transition to independence. It presents several recommendations to improve current practice, including providing better, more accessible mental health support for looked after children, providing better support to foster carers so that placements are less likely to break down, and raising the age of leaving care to a minimum of 18, with support to stay on in successful placements until 21. Given that the average age of leaving home in the general population is now 24, the report argues that looked after children should also have the ‘right to return’ to care until the age of 24.
Many of the report’s recommendations draw on existing good practice, demonstrating that the care system can and does create nurturing environments, and achieve good outcomes for many children. If we are to use care proactively as a tool for improving vulnerable young people’s lives, we must first address our lack of confidence in the system. Dispelling the misunderstandings that are produced by inadequate data is a job for the Department for Education statisticians as well as the policy makers.