Will outcomes for Looked After Children improve during the Fifth Assembly?

Published 24/06/2016   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Next Wednesday (29 June 2016), Assembly Members will debate a proposal that the Welsh Government should examine ways to strengthen inter-departmental working to improve outcomes for looked after children. This debate follows a recent call in a report from the Prison Reform Trust (PDF, 308KB) for the formation of a cabinet sub-committee to provide national leadership in protecting looked after children and young people from unnecessary criminalisation. The report also called for good joint working, proper regulation and policy development across the Welsh Government, to act as an example to local government services. It made the same calls for England. In one of the very first sessions of Plenary in this Fifth Assembly, David Melding AM has already called for ‘outstanding best practice for the advancement of looked-after children’. The First Minister responded saying:

I’ve taken an interest in this issue for some years given the underperformance that we know of looked-after children in the education system. The difficulty is, of course, that looked-after children need support from many areas, whether it’s through social services, whether it’s through the education system, whether it’s through health. Looked-after children sit within the portfolio of Carl Sargeant. That’s done deliberately so that there can be a holistic approach taken to improving outcomes for them. We know, anecdotally at least, that it is said that it is more likely for a looked-after child to end up in prison than in university.

Local authorities already have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of looked after children, a role known as ‘corporate parenting’. The debate on Wednesday is likely to focus on the extent to which local authorities have fulfilled this role and also what more this new Welsh Government can do to improve outcomes for this group of children.

Which children and how many?

The term ‘looked after' is a legal term used to describe (PDF, 1.16MB) any child who is in the care of the local authority or who is provided with accommodation by the local authority social services department for a continuous period of more than 24 hours. It includes children in respect of whom a compulsory court order has been made and children accommodated voluntarily. More recently, the term ‘Children Looked After’ is used. Latest Welsh Government statistics show 5,617 children were looked after by Welsh local authorities on 31 March 2015, a decrease of 2.2% from the previous year. They also show the ‘number of looked after children has increased by 9% over the last five years, but has remained relatively stable over the last three years.’

Chart 1: Number of children looked after in Wales, at March 2015

This is a chart showing numbers of looked after children over a number of years. Source: Welsh Government Adoptions, outcomes and placements for children looked after by local authorities (September 2015) The Wales Children in Need Census 2015 (PDF, 1.16 MB) shows that ‘Abuse or neglect’ was the main reason that children were looked after (66%), the other primary reasons including ‘parental illness / disability or absence’ (7%) and ‘family in acute stress or dysfunction’ (7%). Nearly 75% of looked after children were living in foster care placements. 9 % of looked after children had three or more placements in 2014-15, (512 of the 5,617 children looked after as of 31st March 2015). 20% of children had two placements during the year. In 2010, an Assembly Committee’s report into ‘Arrangements for the Placement of Children into Care’ (PDF,1.09MB) set out concerns about the range of factors that influence the success and stability of such placements.

Characteristics and outcomes

The Wales Children in Need Census 2015 (PDF, 1.16 MB) includes a wide range of data about looked after children. For example it shows that:

  • More than 8% of looked after children were diagnosed as having a ‘mental health problem’, receiving Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services or on a waiting list for services;
  • Nearly 6% of looked after children had ‘substance misuse problems’ (broadly defined as being ‘intoxication by – or regular excessive consumption of - and/or dependence on’ drugs or alcohol);
  • Nearly 13% of looked after children had a disability;
  • The Prison Reform Trust’s recent report (PDF, 308KB) noted that whilst 94% of looked after children did not get involved in the criminal justice system, this group of children are ‘significantly over represented in the criminal justice system and in custody’.

Educational outcomes

How well looked after children do in school and whether they progress to further training or employment is often considered to be an important measure of how well this group of children have been supported by their corporate parent. Their attainment is generally low compared to the school population as a whole. Latest Welsh Government statistics (PDF, 1.16MB) show there is a wide gap between the attainments of looked after children and that of all pupils (see chart below). As at March 2015:

  • At Foundation Phase the gap is 23 percentage points;
  • At Key Stage 2 the gap is 24 percentage points;
  • At Key Stage 3 the gap increases to 36 percentage points;
  • The gap is at its widest at Key Stage 4, with a 40 percentage point difference, wider than the 38 percentage point gap in 2014.

Only 18 percent of looked after children achieve 5 GCSEs A*-C including English or Welsh and mathematics. Latest statistics also show that 45 % of care leavers aged 19 were not in education, training or employment in 2015 (the lowest percentage in the past 9 years). A Buttle Trust report (PDF, 8.95MB)states that in 2011, only 7% of care leavers in Wales aged 19 were in HE, which represented 24 students. However the Trust’s report also said that all Welsh Higher Education Institutions were accredited with the Buttle Trust Quality Mark for Care Leavers, which showed they provided minimum level of support to care leavers and had demonstrated a commitment to improving their provision further.

Chart 2: The gap at Foundation Phase and Key Stages between the educational outcomes of children in need, looked after children, and all pupils at 31 March 2015 (a)

This is a chart comparing educational outcomes of looked after children and other pupils Source: Welsh Government Children in Need Census 2015

A range of Welsh Government strategies

There have been numerous strategies and guidance issued since 1999 when the welfare and protection of looked after children was placed firmly on the political agenda by the findings of the Waterhouse Inquiry.

  • In 1999, then Minister Jane Hutt, launched a three year programme, Children First, intended to transform the management and delivery of social services for children in need, including those who are looked after. All local authorities were expected to strengthen their systems and show steady improvement in outcomes for children and young people.
  • In 2007, the Welsh Government went on to publish Towards a Stable Life and a Brighter Future guidance aimed at strengthening the placement, health, education and wellbeing of looked after children and young people.
  • The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 aims to address ways in which services are delivered and to improve the life chances of children in the care system. As a result of the implementation of the Act, the Welsh Government is currently working on a National Approach to Looked After Children (PDF, 384KB) which seeks to focus on promoting and improving collaborative working across agencies, identifying and sharing good practice and making improvements where they are needed.
  • In January 2016, the Welsh Government published its Strategy for raising the attainment of children who are looked after, a joint strategy between the relevant Ministers for Education and Social Services. This strategy points to the fact that abuse or neglect are the most common reasons for a child to be taken into care and states:
The life of a looked after child is often characterised by trauma and stress in their home life. Their continuum of learning is often interrupted by foster placement changes and time out of school. Self esteem and confidence are inevitably compromised.
  • It also points to the fact that the care system may itself be contributing to poor outcomes, for example a lack of ambition for the children which appears to exist within the public care system, placement instability and leaving foster care too young.

Other types of Welsh Government interventions include the Pupil Deprivation Grant for looked after children(PDF, 49.9KB), with regional education consortia receiving £1,150 per looked after child in 2016-17. The Welsh Government also recently launched the When I am Ready Scheme which supports care leavers who want to continue living with their foster carers once they turn 18. Looked after children are at higher risk of sexual exploitation. The Welsh Government’s 2016 National action plan to prevent and protect children and young people from sexual exploitation requires Safeguarding Children Boards and partner agencies to develop best practice approach to the placement of looked after children and young people, for example considering the potential increased risks of exploitation when placing them out of their home area.

Advocacy provision

The importance of looked after children being able to access independent advocates was elevated when the Waterhouse Inquiry found that the victims of decades of widespread sexual and physical abuse of children in north Wales care homes had not been believed or listened to. It recommended that all looked after children should have access to an independent advocate. The previous Children’s Commissioner spoke about his frustration at the ‘initial slow response’ to recommendations he has made about independent advocacy in his 2012 Missing Voices report (PDF, 285KB) and the follow up 2013 report Missing Voices, Missing Progress (PDF, 375KB). There is yet to be confirmation as to whether local authorities and Welsh Government will implement a national model for statutory advocacy services to coincide with the requirements of the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014.

The Children and Social Work Bill in England

The Children and Social Work Bill currently before the UK Parliament would place a duty on English local authorities to publish information about the services they offer care leavers (referred to by David Cameron as a 'care leavers’ covenant'). This would include for example services relating to health and well-being; education and training; employment and accommodation. However Children England, the umbrella body for children’s organisations, has referred to the Bill as a missed opportunity. It says ‘there is no vision outlined for looked after children’s services, their purpose, resourcing or structure, and the experiences and outcomes for children that should be delivered by those services. Instead there is a focus on tying up loose ends from previous legislation and obliging local authorities to communicate more, rather than deliver more.’

Further information

Article by Sian Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service