Written in collaboration with Dr Aoife O’Higgins, Director of Research, WWCSC, and Dr Anders Bach-Mortensen, Affiliated researcher at WWCSC and postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford
It is increasingly difficult for local authorities (LAs) to secure the right residential placement for each child in their care. It is clear that with rising numbers of children in care, budget constraints and a scarcity of placements, LAs face many hurdles in providing quality placements for children who often have increasingly complex needs. There are barriers to new providers entering the market and a mismatch between where homes are located and where they are needed. What is less clear is how LAs in England have responded to these challenges.
Looking at LAs’ sufficiency strategies, focusing on residential care, is one way to identify steps LAs are taking to address these issues. LAs are required by law to ensure sufficient accommodation for children in care within their area (to the extent that this is ‘reasonably practicable’). They are also required to formulate plans about how they will achieve this through commissioning, which are described in their sufficiency strategies. WWCSC was commissioned by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care to analyse LAs’ sufficiency strategies to get a better understanding of how they are addressing current challenges.
We found that almost half (44%) of LAs did not have a publicly available, up-to-date sufficiency strategy.1 This is a surprising finding given that strategies are a key aspect of fulfilling the sufficiency duty, and could be a useful tool for LAs to communicate their future needs to providers.
In the strategies we analysed (n=81), LAs reported an increase in demand for residential placements, and alongside this, an increase in the complexity of children’s needs. Even a small increase in the number of children who required high need residential placements severely impacted LAs budgets. LAs also reported that independent (private for-profit and third sector) providers’ prices have risen, though it was unclear if this was as a result of the increasing complexity of young people’s needs.
Sufficiency strategies stressed the importance of placing children locally, with local providers, but many LAs were struggling to do so. Notably even those LAs who had, on paper, sufficient local supply, sometimes struggled to place children locally because placements were filled by children from other areas. More than half of LAs reported being part of a regional or sub-regional framework, but often noted their limited effectiveness as not all LAs took part and not all providers joined the frameworks.
On top of this, many sufficiency strategies indicated that LAs own forecasting projections about the future number of children needing care, could not be used with any confidence. This seems a barrier to meaningful engagement with providers as LAs do not have reliable information around future need (based on the material presented in sufficiency strategies).
Some other elements were missing from strategies that we might have expected to see. Few strategies reported on their progress against previous strategies; more reflection on this would provide insight and learning useful for the sector as a whole. In addition, it was rarely clear if children, young people, and providers had been consulted on the content of the sufficiency strategies. This should be considered carefully for future strategies.
More positively, we found that LAs were taking steps to try to solve some of these problems. Several sufficiency strategies described LAs own unique (but often untested) commissioning responses. At the risk of saying our research found the need for more research, little is known about the outcomes associated with these emerging commissioning approaches. Much more could be done to understand variation in commissioning outcomes and how this relates to LA characteristics.
It’s important to stress that the extent to which sufficiency strategies depict existing practice on the ground in LAs is unclear. Improving the reporting and content of these documents will not, in isolation, change commissioning outcomes for children and young people. However, our analysis provides a window onto the reported struggles LAs currently face in commissioning residential placements for children in their care. We hope these insights will inform and support LAs, policy makers, providers and researchers as they work together to improve the residential placement process for children and young people in care.
1After excluding out-dated documents, 81 sufficiency strategies (covering 84 LAs) were included in our analysis.