Care / Care experienced / Permanence News Publication / Research

Behind the bravado is a frightened child – calling for greater stability for children in care

Initial analysis in a new report Stability Index worryingly suggests that:

experiencing a change of placement or school is associated with a higher likelihood of experiencing a change in social worker.

The correlation is not perfect – many children also experience no change in social worker despite changing care placement or school – and other factors are likely to play a role. Nevertheless it is a worrying finding given the importance of children’s relationships to their overall wellbeing.

The findings are detailed in a report by the office of the children’s commissioner for England. It considers new measures for understanding the stability of children who are looked after, bringing together data on care placements, schools and social workers.

In a related article ‘Schools are set up to help children in care – so why do so many of these pupils leave through the back door?’, the children’s commissioner – Anne Longfield,  writes that ‘Looked-after children are much more likely to suffer the turmoil of switching schools mid-year’. Anne says ‘We will be continuing this work to understand better why a school system set up to welcome children in care through the front door, ends up seeing so many of them leave through the back’. Anne says:

Behind the bravado and the hostility lies a frightened child.

The findings are exploratory, intended as a first step in the long- term development of the Stability Index. Analyses focus on the experiences of stability in 2015/16 for children in care on the 31st March 2016 – providing a snapshot.

Recognition is given to the fact that instability does not always lead to a negative outcome; disruption may be necessary to achieving permanence for some children in particular circumstances.

However, the key message remains unchanged: achieving stability tends to correlate with better later-life outcomes and must be our priority.

Results of national studies complement what children and young people tell us about what’s important. Achieving stability continues to be a key factor to achieving better life outcomes.

Some key findings – children and young people 

  • Stability was important – not just for children in care, but for all children.“It matters for all children that they don’t move a lot.”
  • That change can be a good thing, with opportunities to make new friends and meet new people.
  • Some children shared their experiences of a positive change.  “I hated my school. Moving made me happier.”
  • Many children and young people thought experiencing frequent change was usual for children in care.
  • That stability facilitates relationships and helps them feel safe. It reinforces the feeling that someone is there for you, and you know what is going to happen.

Findings from national studies

Findings from a State of the Nation survey in 2015, showed that changes of foster parents and social workers can leave children and young people feeling anxious. The timings of changes can also undermine children and young people’s ability to reach their expected potential.

Recent national studies and government data support what children say about their experience. Placement moves tend to show a correlation with:

We are cautioned against interpreting these associations causally – acknowledging that children in care and care leavers are already disadvantaged, but there can be no doubt that achieving stability helps create the conditions for achieving better later-life outcomes .

Stability Index Summary of Initial Findings

  • Children in care have consistently raised stability as an important issue in their care experience. Preliminary analyses complemented their views.
  • 1 in 10 children in care experienced two or more placement moves in 2015/16 – in line with:  statistical release.
  • For most local authorities the percentage of children experiencing multiple placement moves over 12 months is broadly in line with the national average – with a few exceptions. Where differences remain, it was not possible to judge whether they were due to variations in practice, data quality, data reporting, other characteristics of the local authority or other child factors that have not been controlled for.
  • A relatively similar proportion of children in care experienced school moves over the summer months compared to the national average for all children. However, at least 1 in 10 children in care moved school in the middle of the academic year in 2015/16, which is considerably higher than the population average of 3 in 100.
  • Even after controlling for children’s characteristics, there were significant differences between areas in the proportion of children experiencing mid-year school moves. Overall, it is highest in East of England and Outer London, and lowest in the North East and North West. It is not clear why these differences exist: they could be due to variations in practice, data quality, data reporting, other characteristics of the local authority or other child factors that have not been controlled for.
  • Instability in placements may be associated with instability at school: children who experience a placement move are nearly three times more likely to experience a mid-year school move, while children who experience multiple placement moves are nearly four times more likely to do so. At the same time, however, more than half of children who experienced a mid-year school move did not experience a placement move in 2015/16, so other factors also play a role.
  • The results from pilot data collection suggest that 1 in 4 children experienced 2 or more changes in social workers, and 1 in 10 experienced 3 or more changes. There was considerable variation across participating local authorities, possibly due to local variability in how information on social worker changes is recorded.
  • When looking at stability across all three dimensions – placement, school and social worker, pilot data indicated that 7 in 10 children experienced some form of change in their placement, school or social worker in 2015/16.
  • Approximately 2 in 100 children in care who also attended school experienced high levels of instability across all three measures, with multiple placement moves, a mid-year school move and multiple social worker changes.Initial analysis suggests that experiencing a change of placement or school is associated with a higher likelihood of experiencing a change in social worker. However, the correlation is not perfect. Many children also experience no change in social worker despite changing placement or school – and other factors are likely to play a role.

As stated by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, in a separate Inquiry by the All Parliamentary Group for Children:

“a lot of people talk about the need for stability and permanence, however there is rapid turnover and placement turnover and a need to have trusted relationships.”

Important note

The findings are exploratory, intended as a first step in the long- term development of the Stability Index. Analyses focus on the experiences of stability in 2015/16 for children in care on the 31st March 2016, and therefore only provide a snapshot.

Read the full report at source: Stability Index: Initial Findings and Technical Report and Stability Index Overview and Initial Findings 

Related piece: ‘Schools are set up to help children in care – so why do so many of these pupils leave through the back door?’ – Anne Longfield

Also worth reading and sharing: 

Advice and assistance

If you have an enquiry about the Children’s Commissioner advice and assistance service for children in care, living away from home or receiving social care services, visit Help at Hand.

Our mission is to help bring about improvements in practice and policy. Holding children at the centre of what we do through our work with and for them, we aim to lead and promote excellent care and services. The partnership consists of an elected Chair and elected Regional Leads who represent their regions at a national level (two from each of the nine regions within England).

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