A response to Children in Charge from Harvey Gallagher, CEO, Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers

The central tenet to Children England's paper, Children in Charge, is right - to require local authorities to place children in care in the most appropriate placement, regardless of rising numbers, levels of need, or changes in national policy, whilst giving them a set annual budget that decreases over time, is in all likelihood a flawed and unsustainable premise. Commissioning (or procurement, as it often manifests itself) has by and large not been able to solve that problem. In fact, an emphasis on a rough understanding of unit / weekly cost that barely relates to outcomes seems to drive placement choices, rather than children's needs. But thank goodness it hasn't seen the driving down of costs so much that quality has been sacrificed (independent fostering providers, IFPs, are 85% good or outstanding with Ofsted, with just 1% inadequate) – yet.

Moving the financial responsibility from local to national government doesn't take away this contradiction, though, given that we have a national government that wants to spend less. I do believe that the key is trusting social workers to make the decision about which placement is best for each individual child, based on the needs of the child, not the organisation.

That then gets us closer to the solution – but what is the right amount to pay? How do we understand the costs? How can know what is too much (or too little) to pay? And this is a challenge across local authority in-house and IFP placements. Both the National Audit Office and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CiPFA) think that the section 251 returns made by local authorities to government about their spending on children's services are unreliable (so take everything you hear about relative costings with a huge pinch of salt!). Children are individuals with different needs - but commissioning has tried to reduce their placement needs to a unit cost based on a mythical generic child. Some would say the market addresses that, but I suspect local authorities don't think it has. The automatic preferred provider status given to in-house services (because the economic model deems that they should be filled up first) and weak forward planning interferes with this anyway. So, how could the Care Bank ensure it wasn't just writing a 'blank cheque' to local authorities and / or to providers?

That said, government have similar processes for adoption support and for the secure estate, so there is some willingness to centralise management / funding of some children's services. And the significant resources currently wasted on multiple local / sub-regional / regional commissioning systems is certainly worth addressing.

On data management, though, I wonder if we have a culture in children's services that would mean frontline workers across the country all consistently using one case management system? We've been there before and I suspect that this would be nigh on impossible. But I do think national developments like LinkMaker have something to offer to understand and use vacancies more effectively, and they have shown this can work for adoption.

The key for me is properly capturing, storing and reporting on social worker assessments of children in care and the findings of their annual reviews. That is surely the baseline data for understanding if a placement is meeting a child's needs, and goes back to my earlier point about trusting social work judgements. That will tell us if we are doing well for the children in our care and start to help us figure out what truly represents value for money when we remove the flawed premise that I started with.

Do you have a response to the Children in Charge discussion paper? We'd love to hear it