In November a review was published for the Government by Sir Michael Barber. Rather than concerning himself with whether the £814 billion of public spending this year was too high or too low he considered how the “best possible value” could be achieved. Given that over 40 per cent of our money is taken from us to be spent by the state that is an important theme to pursue, although rather daunting in its scope.

Sir Michael included the following example of good practice:

“Birmingham City Council’s Step Down programme was launched in November 2014, with the purpose of increasing the stability of fostering. The service delivery is funded using a Social Impact Bond issued by Bridges Venture, a social capital investment fund which receives payment from Birmingham City Council if a placement remains stable after 52 weeks. The contract only pays the service provider once outcomes are achieved, rather than for the provision of services.

“Birmingham City Council report £880,000 savings during the programme’s first two years (verified by independent evaluation by Oxford University). Alongside these savings, 70 per cent of the placements made to date remain stable and the majority of participants feel more secure. Average school attendance was higher than a baseline of foster children in residential care, and reduced levels of self-harm alongside improved behaviour was also recorded.”

Very encouraging. I hope other local authorities will look at ways to achieve a reduction in the number of children placed in institutional children’s homes (currently 7,890) rather than in the family environment of foster carers.

Just before Christmas the House of Commons Education Select Committee published a report about fostering which showed greater evidence of innovation in this area.

One example is that since last April the fostering and adoption services at Peterborough City Council have been run by The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (TACT), a national fostering and adoption charity, operating from the Council’s offices.

The Committee’s report said:

“Responsibility has not devolved from the authority, but TACT have provided them with “new leadership, new training, new direction”.  Andy Elvin, Chief Executive of TACT, told us that the main benefit of this arrangement is that it allows a dedicated focus on the permanence services, as they do not have responsibility for child protection. He said that fostering services are often “Cinderella services”, not given the attention they need, as the primary focus for councils is child protection: “Child protection is all-encompassing [ … ] care may not be optimal, but it is rarely dangerous. Something that happens in a foster home is unlikely to cost you your job or cause a council member to resign. In child protection, all the risk is there.

“It is believed that organising services in this way will reduce the council’s reliance on more expensive independent fostering placements, enable improved recruitment and training of local foster carers—Mr Elvin claimed that TACT are going to increase recruitment in Peterborough by 1,500 per cent “because we are good at recruiting in a way that local authorities are not” – and allow them to offer improved services and support for their children and carers, with a department dedicated to foster pay and a 24/7 support service staffed by qualified social workers. Mr Elvin said that several other local authorities had held conversations with TACT, and that, subject to results in Peterborough, he would expect more to make the move to a similar model.”

The Committee heard from Katy Willison, a Department of Education civil servant:

“One of our innovation programme projects in Peterborough is trialling an approach where instead of just giving information that is used at court, which is often very negative and tells of the awful things that have happened in the child’s life, that information is rewritten for foster carers. It talks about the strengths of the child and the opportunities that might be presented. That sets a placement off on a different foot, because it is not all about this terrible thing that happened.”

Achieving for Children is a social enterprise company created by the Kingston upon Thames and Richmond upon Thames councils to provide their children’s services. Last August they were joined by Windsor and Maidenhead which became a co-owner and it now deliver children’s services across all three boroughs.

It says:

“In 2012, children’s services in Kingston were inspected by Ofsted and rated as ‘inadequate’. Since taking over management of services in Kingston in 2014, we have transformed the quality of services. In August 2015, Kingston became one of the first areas in the country to jump two grades in one inspection, when Ofsted rated safeguarding and services for looked after children as ‘good’ across all inspection categories.”

There is also the Trust model. This is where the Government establishes a trust to take over the running of a failing Children’s Services Department. This has happened in Doncaster with the Doncaster Children’s Services Trust. The Committee heard that the “clean break” had “detoxified” the service and so assisted with recruitment.

Of course policy matters as well as good management. Often foster children move home more than twice a year. One reason that children are shunted around the care system is that children are frequently returned to their birth mother, then face further abuse or neglect and so are brought back into care – and a new foster carer… The answer is to greatly increase the adoption rate and the Government’s failure to achieve its worthy ambition in this regard is a hugely missed opportunity.

But even more modest changes could help. For instance Robert Goodwill, the Children’s Minister, told the Committee:

“Delegated responsibility should be happening. My son had a friend at school who was in care and we were talking about a sleepover, and the foster carer said, “Just forget about it. It’s going to be too complicated.” That power’s been given to foster carers, to make decision on school trips, sleepovers and similar, but some local authorities are risk-averse and not delivering that. We need to improve in certain parts of the country in that regard.”

The Adolescent and Children’s Trust said in its evidence:

“There is a need to remove bureaucracy for long stable placements. Many of our young people in long term foster placements question why they must continue to have an allocated social worker and reviews held about them. They would like to have what they see as “intrusion” into their lives reduced to the minimum level possible. TACT believe that long term fostering placements should be afforded a regulatory regime closer to children on Special Guardianship Orders rather than fostering regulations.”

That sounds proportionate.

So if having the fostering service well run is not the entire answer, it certainly helps. There was quite a bit of nervousness about “privatisation” although with the range of different solutions being tried it is a bit simplistic to use that label. The Government seems to be saying that “what works” is what matters – so if a charity or a not-for-profit company can do a better job than a local authority then they should be able to proceed. However, at the same time the Government says a profit making company should be ruled out on principle – whether it could do a better job or not.

Yet there is already a huge role for the private sector in fostering with the agencies employing foster carers. 40 per cent of fostering placements in England are covered by independent firms. One firm alone, the NFA Group, has “3,900 foster carer households looking after circa 4,450 children and young people.” There is a widespread view that such agencies are expensive although in its evidence it says:

“Often a local authority will compare against their allowance to the carer which is only one element of the total cost to the local authority. An Independent Fostering Agencies fee is a fully all-inclusive cost including return on investment, risk, carer and staff recruitment and training costs.  In addition, IFA’s participating in the framework tenders and contracts are required to provide monitoring and Quality Assurance information to LAs at a level and regularity that is rarely, if ever, also applied to any local authority ‘in-house’ services.”

They would say that, wouldn’t they? Very well. So let us suppose that the agencies do charge an excessive amount. If a Council contracted the running of its fostering service to a company that could reduce the need to use these agencies would that not be welcome? There is some muddled thinking on this. Why is it sacrosanct for the management of the service not to be run for profit but fine for the council bureaucrats to run the show and hand over huge sums to agencies? If a council is doing a hopeless job at recruiting and retaining foster carers then inevitably it will end up using agencies.

There is plenty of success to celebrate in the changes being introduced to foster care. Both local and central government should be bold and open minded in allowing reforms to thrive. In-house management, combined local authority management, charities, social enterprises, trusts, not for profits, profit making companies none should be ruled out. There should not be some misguided ideological veto. The criteria should be ensuring the interests of the child are paramount.