Introducing measures to ensure improvements in the fostering and adoption system is all very well, but it is also important that government pays attention to children leaving care, says Janet Rich of National Care Leavers' Week.
As we approach the end of the tenth National Care Leavers' Week and Adoption and Fostering Week starts, government interest in children in care is flagged as a priority at the highest level.
It is 11 years since Tony Blair announced a similar commitment to shaking up the adoption and fostering system, increasing the numbers of children in care put up for adoption and reducing delays. In an interview given to the Times over the weekend, David Cameron announced a green paper detailing new 'floor standards' which will set out the minimum proportion of children that should be adopted from care each year, imposing time limits on the process and penalties for failure.
Lurking at the bottom of a list of five questions put by the government to the sector on improving fostering and adoption services is a request for examples of best practice in leaving care.
New tables published with the announcement take the annual looked-after children statistics and present them in the form of league tables which very clearly rank local authorities against key performance indicators. For care leavers, this includes information about accommodation, when they leave care, and their employment or education status. Does this tell us anything new? Not really.
The most striking thing in all of the data tables is the marked contrast between different local authorities. Inequalities across local authority boundaries is something that the group of care leavers who meet regularly with children's minister Tim Loughton have been flagging up consistently for the last 12 months.
Research professor at the Social Policy Research Unit of the University of York, Mike Stein's new book on the history of the children's rights movement for children in care published tomorrow, highlights similar concerns going back 40 years.
So now that we have the statistics nicely presented in 'name and shame' format, this leaves two big questions. Why are there such enormous variations, and what is government going to do about it?
National Care Leavers' Week understands that new floor targets are to be published for all of these performance indicators, and mechanisms will be put in place for poorly performing local authorities to learn from better ones.
What will be done about local authorities who don't learn, or won't learn?
At a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for looked after children and care leavers last week, care leaver Jess Inwood, who attends the minister's care leavers group and has also worked with the National Care Advisory Service (NCAS) on the National Benchmarking Forum for leaving care, commented that this approach is unlikely to yield significant results.
"The local authorities that come along to these activities tend to be the ones that are already striving to improve and want to do well. The really poorly performing authorities are staying at home fire-fighting, not out attending seminars on improvement,” she said.
So what do these new 'league tables' tell us about the experiences of care leavers?
On accommodation we learn that in the lowest-performing authorities the percentage of care leavers at 19 who are in unsuitable accommodation is as high as 30 per cent in Doncaster, and 27 per cent in Southampton for the year ending 31 March 2011.
Only 16 per cent of the 150 local authorities in England have 100 per cent of their care leavers in suitable accommodation, as has been required in law since the 2000 Children (Leaving Care) Act.
For higher education (HE) the differences are even starker. Whilst Barking and Dagenham had an impressive 39 per cent of their care leavers in higher education at the age of 19 in 2010/2011, Leeds, Norfolk and Suffolk returned an average of just three per cent over the last three years, with a further 21 boroughs having no care leaver at all aged 19 in HE during the year ending 31 March 2011.
Of course, these raw statistics tell us nothing about the demographics of the populations concerned, or the individual circumstances of care leavers who make up those populations, but variations as great as those indicated are too large to be explained away by local differences.
If you are a care leaver on the 'wrong' side of any of these statistics, chances are your life at the moment is miserable and going in the wrong direction, and it is of little relevance to you that your local authority might have shown a two percentage point increase in performance in the previous 12 months.
There is another difficulty with the 'snapshot' statistics that are generated from these kinds of performance data: at 19 many care leavers are still just gasping for breath as they reach the surface, having been 'thrown overboard' at 16, 17 or 18. Having embarked on their premature and accelerated transition to adulthood and all the responsibilities of an independent householder that go with that, it will take them longer to swim ashore or find a lifeboat than their contemporaries who are still living in the family home, often well into their 20s.
For many, entry to higher education does not take place until some two or three years later, and this is not captured in current statistical returns.
League tables may be helpful in pulling up short those authorities who continue to be poor corporate parents and consistently let their care leavers down – in all areas from housing to education, to advice and support – and government must do better in ensuring that local authorities implement the legislation that is already in place for them to follow.
However, ultimately it is not a top-down approach that will improve the lives of individual care leavers; it is also the responsibility of every leaving-care worker and team manager to stand up for the rights and entitlements of the care leavers they have responsibility for, and not themselves be ground down by the culture of fatalism and low aspiration that seems endemic in some of the lower-performing authorities.
Improvements in the fostering and adoption system will improve lives for some children in care. It will not provide solutions for all of them. We will probably have another prime ministerial announcement a decade from now, calling for similar reforms and changes to give more children permanent families.
It is important that government also continues to pay attention to what happens at the other end of the system when children leave public care, and recognises that this is still work in progress.
The league tables have given us more easily digestible information, which is not particularly palatable. Now we want to see action for improvement.
Have your say by visiting the Department for Education Facebook site to share your views on improving transitions for children leaving care. http://www.facebook.com/educationgovuk?sk=app_274534169253223