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Commissioning secure children’s home placements in England

A thematic analysis of stakeholder views and recommendations on the commissioning of secure children’s home (SCH) places in England.

THEMES

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May 2022

Summary

This report presents a thematic analysis of stakeholder views and recommendations on the commissioning of secure children’s home (SCH) places in England. This is an important area of research given the cost of these placements and the complexity of needs of young people in these settings. We found broad agreement among stakeholders that in order to achieve improvements, central government should play a bigger role in facilitating coordination, accountability and oversight of referrals and placements in SCHs.

Objectives

The main objectives of this report were to investigate existing commissioning and allocation practices for SCHs and their impact on children and young people. 

We posed the following research questions: 

  1. What are the main perceived challenges in the commissioning and allocation process for SCH? 
  2. What are the main stakeholder recommendations to improve the quality of SCHs? 

How we went about it

To understand why commissioning and sufficiency challenges persist in SCHs we:

  • Reviewed the existing research on secure accommodation provision and SCHs
  • Analysed the most recent data on SCHs and the characteristics of children referred and placed in these facilities
  • Conducted a thematic analysis of the most recent Ofsted reports (n=13) and 17 in-depth interviews with a total of 24 stakeholders.

We invited all SCHs in England to participate in the in-depth interviews, as well as a sample of LA commissioners, representatives from the Youth Custody Service (YCS), Ofsted, the Secure Welfare Coordination Unit and several third sector organisations. 

Key findings

  • There is a clear sense from the stakeholders interviewed that the ability of SCHs to meet their original purpose – to safeguard society’s most vulnerable children – has been compromised, largely due to sufficiency issues driven by an absence of adequate oversight of the SCH provision.
  • This study reveals that many of the problems experienced by SCHs are characterised by a cohort of children who have overlapping needs and characteristics but are managed by siloed pathways and decentralised commissioning practices without national oversight. 
  • Interviewees felt that occupancy rates are not a meaningful indicator of supply. At times, occupancy rates in SCHs are low, despite high demand. However, these figures do not reflect the complexity of young people’s needs nor the capacity of SCHs to accommodate children with different needs.
  • Interviewees believe the needs of children referred to SCHs have become increasingly complex. This presents significant placement challenges as SCHs have not evolved to meet children’s increasing needs, including severe mental health difficulties.
  • The process through which places are commissioned varies considerably for the YCS and LAs. The YCS uses block contracts for its justice beds which offer SCH providers more financial security and flexibility compared to children placed by LAs. 
  • Participants highlighted that the absence of national oversight and procedures was problematic. This means there is little guidance on supporting young people leaving SCHs and no assessment of the impact that SCHs have. Participants recommended that a shared outcome framework should be developed to address this.
  • Most participants agreed that a central commissioning unit for all children referred to SCHs should be created to oversee referrals, placements and data. This would improve coordination among providers and those referring children and if transparent increase equity. 

Implications

Our findings show that, although there was no clear consensus around how and by whom it should be done, there was broad agreement that national oversight and centralised commissioning are required to improve SCH provision. Stakeholders reported that there is a significant overlap in the needs and characteristics of children placed in SCH for justice and welfare reasons. However, because there is no shared accountability and no joint commissioning, placement outcomes were often seen to be arbitrary and not child centred. In addition, the perceived lack of coordination with and support from mental health services meant that SCHs are seen to be struggling to meet children’s mental health needs. 

Interviewees recognised the challenge in bringing change, especially given the legal distinction between justice and welfare placements, and the organisational hurdles associated with cross-organisational coordination. Most interviewed stakeholders therefore appealed for central government to facilitate a process through which improved coordination, accountability, and oversight can be achieved.

Next steps

WWCSC was commissioned to carry out this research by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care to inform the Review’s understanding of the area and to support the formulation of recommendations.