Earlier this month on BBC Radio 4, File on 4 broadcast an investigation into the state of provision for Care Leavers in the UK, ahead of the National Audit Office’s report on the same subject, which is due out later in the summer. I’ll link to the audio at the bottom of the page in case you’re interested.
The whole thing was deeply saddening, just because of the subject matter: young people – children really – who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in a situation where they have had to be taken away from home and placed in public care. The stories are many and varied, and of course children’s experiences differ wildly. Many will end up with utterly lovely carers, many will return home in a few days or weeks, but whatever the situation, it’s hard to imagine ever being able to come through that kind of separation completely emotionally unscathed, especially when it lasts for years and involves a series of placements in homes of varying quality. The programme focused on people at the upper end of that age group, in mid-late teens, when they seem more independent, able to cope even with being temporarily housed in a B&B instead of a carer’s home, when perhaps people around them are starting to forget that they are needy and hurt and to see them as troublemakers or delinquent in some way. There was a real sense of damage done and lives dislocated in the stories the interviewees told of life in the fringes of the care system.
For those of us who work in and around the social care sector, we know that social work teams are incredibly hard-working and committed to their role. It’s not the sort of job you go into for the money and the glory (just ask the tabloids…) so if that’s a person’s chosen career you can usually assume there’s an underlying core of dedication there. The programme raised some interesting points though, both for social workers themselves about case management, and for policy makers about how resources are allocated to these services, because, after all, you can only stretch a team and a budget so far, no matter how well-managed it might be and how dedicated the individual staff members. I can’t pretend to have any answers on this of course.
What did strike me, as a data person, was the figures that came up in the discussion, comparing numbers of care leavers in suitable accommodation across various local authorities, The numbers vary wildly. Now, I’ve been around a bit and I’ve seen how some of this data is collected across over maybe a dozen local authorities in my time, to one degree or another, and I didn’t place a lot of significance in the numbers. Here are a few general impressions, picked up from the whirl of past experience:
Cases like this are usually managed by a specialist team, maybe serving all looked after children, or maybe even more specialised on care leavers from the age of fourteen or so, (when preparation for adulthood begins in earnest) up to about twenty-five in some cases, depending on the situation. Often the teams are keeping their eye on the ball just fine, down at the local level in Looked After Reviews or Pathway Plan Reviews, where a young person’s situation is discussed. However, the government can’t really assimilate that level of detail. All it wants at year end for its SSDA903 Return are a few codes relating to whether or not the authority is in touch with the young person, whether they are properly housed, in employment and so on. Getting those codes is where the problem lies. A really green performance manager (and I must say, I’ve never met one) might just assume whatever they get out of the central case recording system is the gospel. It isn’t though, because in their creaky old legacy systems, either there’s nowhere in that system to record the codes needed (that’s often why I’m theer: to help replace it with something better) or else they aren’t well understood. In rare cases where they are fully recorded, they might be out of date or else other recording or interpretation errors have crept in as the social worker tries to relate the building they have just placed a child in and the list of options in the dropdown menu before them. More hard-nosed performance managers, with a detached, world-weary look, will chase people to update the system and trust that these entreaties are acted on, and of course there will be others who just give up and send round questionnaires to be filled in offline and sent back. So, in short, when I hear that Council X has 100% suitable accommodation and Council Y has only 35%, I don’t necessarily assume that Council Y is worse than Council Y, because there’s a complicated network of factors in play, and the difference might come down, largely, to the efficiency of the data-gathering machine. It tends to be that some areas of reporting are more scrutinised than others, and it might be that with more emphasis on Care Leavers recently in the press, both Council X and Council Y will dig into the data more deeply and apply thumbscrews to a couple of deputy managers to get more clarity on the numbers, as certainly happens when other figures (timeliness of Child Protection Reviews, say) dip below a hundred percent.
What lessons can I draw from this? Well, as someone involved in preparation for new systems, I guess there are two things. Firstly, with this kind of data, never assume it’s held in the system; it’s a prime example of items to be addressed during the data migration project’s “Spreadsheet Amnesty”. It needs to be gathered in and assimilated into the body of the migration. Secondly, as far as possible, new systems should be designed in such a way that social workers don’t have to spend all their time “feeding the beast”. The recording system should be easy to complete, with no hidden backwaters, and all the relevant statistical data should be extracted from normal case work instead of needing extra recording. Why should I care about the poor social worker doing a little extra work? Well, because if the team is overstretched already by government cuts, ever hour spent at a terminal is an hour less spent with the care leaver, helping them sort out a bed to sleep in, a college place, or whatever it might be. Whichever way you slice it, that has to be a good thing, both for the care leaver, for the taxpayer and for the social worker. Social workers have feelings too, you know!
Simple case recording also enables more consistency. Whether or not you agree with the idea of government returns and their role in a centralised command-and-control system, it doesn’t help anyone if certain councils are named and shamed on File on 4, not because they are serving their customers poorly, but because stats are being collected haphazardly. Now, of course, I haven’t studied the councils named in the report. I’ve worked at a couple, but not recently enough to be able to say anything specific, and I’m certainly not here to take sides for or against them. All I know is my data-geek sense was tingling when I heard that particular part of the documentary, and that’s what made me sit down and plan this blog post.
Audio: File on 4 – Abandoned to Their Fate
(Can’t see the audio player? Try this link)
Next month the National Audit Office is due to report on the outcomes for young people leaving care. There are claims that, under financial pressure, local authorities are pushing too many teenagers into independent living before they’re ready. File on 4 investigates new figures that suggest many young care leavers are failing to cope – with large numbers ending up in custody, homeless, sexually exploited or pregnant. Social services chiefs say the welfare of care-leavers must be a key priority for the new government. But who holds them to account when they fail those they are meant to have looked after? And, with more cuts on the way, can the system cope? Fran Abrams reveals how hands-off caring can have tragic consequences.