Oct 29th, 2021
What's it like to leave care? We spoke to a care-experienced person who's also Ofsted's head of research. How did the pandemic impact young care leavers? Find out more in this episode of our podcast - subscribe so you don't miss an episode!
CJ: Chris Jones, Ofsted’s director of corporate strategy
YS: Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director for regulation and social care
AC: Andrew Cook, Ofsted’s regional director for the North West
DB: Donna Brown, Ofsted’s head of research
CJ: Hello and welcome to this episode of Ofsted talks. This time we're speaking to Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director for regulation and social care, Andrew Cook our regional director for the North West and we're talking about leaving care. We're also speaking to Donna Brown, our head of research who is herself care experienced.
Tell us, obviously got a massively important role in this sector, part of which we carry out by talking to as many care leavers as we possibly can. And over this summer we surveyed care leavers Didn't we talk about that and what are we hoping to find out?
YS: Yes, you're absolutely right, Chris, talking to the young people is a really important part of our time in children's homes. When we're working when we're working looking at fostering agencies and local authorities, and we also do our annual survey because it's really important to us to know how young people are being supported and preparing for their futures.
We were pleased to ask some current care leavers about helping us design the questions and making sure that we really got to the issues that were of concern to them. We not only want to hear from young people who might be leaving care soon or from those who they left care recently, we also wanted to hear from people who left, maybe a few years ago and really so that we can learn from the experience of everybody who's been through the care system.
DB: Just to say the team absolutely loved doing this piece of work, particularly because they got to work with care leavers in constructing the questionnaires, they got to hear their experiences, but they really worked sort of hand in glove with, with a lot of caregivers on this project and a lot, a lot of people gave their time and supported the team and developing it, and, yeah, we were really pleased and really grateful that they, they took part.
AC: Did we get, did we get on care leavers from across the country?
DB: I mean, not that it wasn't representative, obviously, but, but yeah, we had it, we had a good mix of care leavers attend workshops to develop the questions and it wasn't a case of us sort of, we've got some questions we've developed what do you think of them they really, they started the ball rolling and they came up with, you know, what was most important to them as care leavers, and we really, we really took their lead on it actually so we’re really chuffed.
YS: Just to endorse what Donna's just said, you know, we would have come up with a crusty old sentence about how you’re being prepared for financial independence.
AC: Yeah, and they strip that back to the absolutely, you know, have we got enough money.
YS: Yeah. And to be frank, you know, our children are used to having a budget and managing, they often take a great deal of personal responsibility far earlier than, then you know biological children do who still live reside with their family so people raised with us how they're being supported with independence, how are they being supported to maintain relationships with their biological family, because beyond care, you know, your support networks are going to be really important. So it's how you maintain those relationships, relationships with your personal advisor with your social worker with your biological family, with your foster care siblings, you spent years with a family that relationship isn't severed overnight.
AC: I really think that getting behind the things that are really important to our care leavers are absolutely key. And that's interesting because in the Northwest I was hearing stories of some of the, you know, in the COVID times that we've gone through, where restrictions to transport public transport was actually a real issue for some young people, you know, it actually, it stopped them going to see members of their family and you know it's just those really practical things that got in the way, as they did for everybody but obviously, particularly for care leavers.
DB: In the team, we're still working through the responses and, you know there'll be drafting the report in the next couple of months but I think what it will really help us do is compare side by side. The statutory, what our local authorities are required to provide in preparation support, and then what are currently telling us they're actually getting and how big is that, that difference, you know once we picked it apart a bit more we'll be able to train inspectors on what we've learned and they'll be able to take that out into their inspection practice as well, so it'll be a real wraparound piece of work.
CJ: Tell us what is Ofsted’s role in children's social care for those who perhaps don't know so much about it?
YS: We're Ofsted, we’re the regulator of children's homes and foster care agencies. So this means that we register the people and the places to support children in care, and those preparing to leave care. This means that we monitor and inspect the provision and report publicly on what we find. And when things are just not good enough that we can undertake enforcement activity and that might mean saying that they can only have fewer children at the provision or even closing a home in an agency. We also inspect and report on local authority children's services but the DfE their regulator, and they will decide whether to intervene in a local authority. When we visit children's homes, we'll be talking to the children who lived there about what it's really like to live in that home, how they're supported now and how they're being prepared for the time that they will leave. We did the same when we inspect local authority Children's Services where we meet children who are in care and also care leavers, what is their experience what's working well for them, what could the services that are meant to support them do to help them for the future. But now, he really importantly, do they feel safe and supported now, and are they being well prepared for life beyond care.
CJ: We've spoken a bit about foster care already, tell us a bit more about what happens in foster care and importantly what happens afterwards.
YS: So, so most of the children in care in the country are in foster care so they're living with a family with a family where there may be other foster children who will be their siblings or maybe with the biological children or the foster carers or if the foster carers a bit older with contact grandchildren, which is always lovely. These are the homes, and the family for our children over periods of time. And it's really important that young people know what's going to happen to them beyond 18. For some young people now that means staying put arrangement which allows a young person to remain with their foster carers after their 18th birthday, but it has to be both right for them and for their foster carers and their foster carers do have to agree to it and there are complicated issues around payments and benefits, and a whole heap of other things that make that do make that very difficult decision for foster carers, many of whom would love to continue to be the be the parent, even if the children move on. It's a bit more challenging for children in residential care, there is a staying put close equivalent, but, but it needs a lot more investment and support to make it really work. We look at staying put arrangements on inspection, and most people would agree, the opportunity to stay port with their foster carers is is such a good initiative. After all, most young people don't leave home until they're ready and for emotional people that definitely isn't before they're 18, and for some considerably afterwards. But we know staying put opportunities are not always available, and sometimes the support for from the carers does taper off, and sometimes the planning, the planning doesn't start soon enough. I remember having many conversations with my social workers, and with young people about what is the time to start making those decisions about your next stages in your life. And, but I think young people, even at 14 want to really know what's happening to them at 18. Because they're planning what they're doing in terms of their education or they're going to go on to university. So having those conversations, albeit that they can be difficult, early on, and working over those years to make sure that there is a clear a clear pathway for those young people into early adulthood is just so important.
DB: It's so really difficult, a difficult one, that isn't it about, at what point you start those conversations and what conversations you have, because they're starting at too late, but then there's, you know, for me personally, I was having those conversations at 14/15, moving into a new placement, where it was made pretty clear. When you turn 18 You know you have to leave. So at 14/15 I was very conscious that I had a set time period, and you know at 16 I got a job so that I could start saving, I did my driving test really early, but I felt that pressure, very young and was worried about where I was going to go what was going to happen to me. So, it's tricky isn't it to get that balance right.
YS: It's really important that young people have got that as much certainty of planning, but in even having that conversation you're creating uncertainty and anxiety, and that's why the relationship with their social worker, and their foster carer is so important and why I was against your social worker changing in that period of time, if we can give as much continuity to the young people during that period of time, then, then that gives them one less pressure in what will be, and if those of us that weren't in foster care. Am I gonna stay on to do a levels, am I going to go to college, to have all of that. And then on top where am I going to live. Am I able to maintain my relationship with my foster care siblings. It is really hard and, and absolutely really important that we do that so well, and so supportively and with as much continuity as we can offer.
AC: Donna, really really important is if you talked about making [decisions], what was the role of the school in all of that do you think that helped.
DB: Funnily enough, actually, I just, I had one really great form tutor who sort of sat me down and said, Look, if you go to university, you'll get a student loan, and you'll have somewhere to live for three years, and you can sort of not worry about it for a bit then. And it was the perfect time to have that conversation with me because I was 14. GCSEs were far enough away that I could get my head down, but close enough that I could just, I could just get on with it so, so that's what I did and that, and I, that was what I worked towards, and it wasn't after be honest that wasn't because I had fantastic ideas about what I wanted to do in a career or anything it was literally, that's a really good option of a place to go and live for a bit. And luckily, you know, that, that worked out reasonably well but were all the people around you at that point, that were supporting me? Were they all talking to each other as well. No, I mean, that I'd spent most of my time and care in formal foster care stranger foster care, but at that point I'd moved into kinship with my aunt and uncle. They didn't really have much of a relationship with my social worker who kept changing, who I didn't really have much of a relationship with. And basically the only thing I got in the end was, they agreed to pay half of my university fees, which didn't actually help me in the immediate term at all. It meant when I was 30 I had a lower student loan to pay back but when I was 18, that didn't really do very much. No, I would say it was my friend's parents that helped me the most. Actually, my best friend's mum gave me a lot of support, and a lot of encouragement and I got it from people, you know, informal relationships rather than any kind of care provided relationships.
CJ: So, Ofsted, we're always in the market for opportunities for improvement and we talk to government don't we regularly about things that we're worried about – Yvette, what's on your mind at the moment?
YS: I think something that's very topical Chris is the worries that we've had for some time about some of the quality of accommodation, being provided to care leavers under the term of supported lodgings. I personally have seen some brilliant provision, really top quality with people, you know, having a really supportive relationship into early adulthood with young people, varying the support at the age and stage that the young person is you know in and having a really person centred approach for that. But I've also seen some unsafe and unacceptable provision, and perhaps some young people moved into supported lodgings before they're really ready for independence and I know that's a tough call, young people will be pushing, there's many young people who say no I want, I want to move out on be self sufficient and some of them will be ready and some of them will won't some of them will be ready and then something will happen, and they need more support put in. So I think we've got to be much more fluid in that but in response the government have been consulted on new standards for that supported accommodation, it may not mean that we have the exact same model for children's home, because it will be a very different sort of provision, but I really look forward to being part of a dialogue with young people with care leavers with local authorities and with providers about what really good accommodation and support for that group of young people look like so we, we are absolutely up for that challenge Chris and, and I think there is a way to go until we see enough provision for these young people as providing with the right support at the right time. And that's just one of the many issues that we've talked about today and the government I think has recognised the number of really important and complex challenges there are here in setting up the independent care review, and led by Josh McAllister is Ofsted, playing a role in that we are indeed so I regularly meet with Josh and we've submitted a range of documents, not just direct response to the questions he's asked but also from our rich Research and Evaluation inspection findings to, it's a real opportunity through the review to drive improvement for children, young people, including I think for care leavers because we do see a lot of good practice we see a lot of individuals going the extra mile. We see some improving local authorities, but actually we want, you know, our ambitions for it to be even better. And for more children to be safe and supported into adulthood. We've been meeting regularly with the review team, we hope, in particular, that they look at how all departments can work together to better support children. So for example, and you can see from the conversation with Donna housing will be a key issue. She took the opportunity to go to university to know that she'd have continuity of housing for three years but what happens when you come back from from university, how easy is it to get accommodation in the in the locality where you've got the most connection? When you may have been moved around the country, whilst you were in care. So, all government departments have got an opportunity. Here, is it the responsible for housing, as well as local authority Children's Services and we want a really cross government response to how can we secure the right employment pathways for care leavers. I know as a civil service, it's something that we've invested time and energy with, but there's so much more we could do, particularly in the context as Andrew has said earlier about our worries about rising numbers of care leavers not in education and training with the contraction in some of the areas that they've traditionally taken up employment. So we're really glad that the care of use case for change recognises the importance of building relationship and that cross government working too often relationships are broken following moves or changes in the lives of children and care leavers, they don't find themselves with support networks that the wider population has, and also some of them who need support later in life. Donna may well have come back for university got herself a part time job had some support, but then actually things, things break down, I'm talking about lots of different Donnas, there might be another Donna for whom it was much more fragmented and they needed to step in and get that support. So where do you go, where do you go as a care leaver when you're 25 and things aren't working out so well when you've, you've got into debt perhaps you've lost a bit of your job or your, your family infrastructure that was providing some support steps away again. So we really want the system to think about what is the support beyond 18/19 or 20 for people who've been in the care system. How can all government departments and, and wider agencies, step in to support them and getting the stability and resilience they need into adulthood.
CJ: So I'm going to bring in Andrew Cook our regional director for the North West, Andrew, tell us about the issues facing care leavers in your patch.
AC: So, in the North West, the North West is one of those regions that was actually really impacted hard by COVID Right from the beginning and and continues to be so in many ways. I suppose that right at the beginning there was, everybody was trying to do what was the right thing for children and young people and there was some, there was some quick thinking by local authorities to try and support care leavers and sometimes we did see some really creative ways in which to support them. I think probably some of the real challenges was was just a lack of access to internet laptops and all of those sorts of really practical things that probably made caregivers feel even more cut off than they were before some, some were telling us that they actually appreciated being able to be in touch with their advisors using technology but actually you know that face to face was missed by all of us, but particularly also for the care leaves as well and some of the social events that authorities would have been putting on for care leavers were also obviously not there, I suppose, what we did hear from personal advisors was that you know where they did keep in contact that contact was good, and care leavers have told us through some of our inspection work that actually the support that they received was great. That was sometimes a real need for practical support practical support. And sometimes social housing and the accessibility of for that, for care leavers is really an issue, but you know I think local authorities have always tried to find ways around these things. I think the virtual school, which obviously has responsibility and responsibilities towards care leavers I suppose there are different places if I was to be honest across, across the region.
CJ: Donna Brown is Ofsteds’ Head of Research and is care experienced herself. First of all, Donna, tell us about what you do is head of research.
DB: Thanks Chris. So I have a I have a team of researchers, while few teams of researchers actually work on various projects across Ofsted have one team in particular, led by Tania Corbin who runs our social care research team, and then I have lots of responsibilities for education work as well. I've been Ofsted for eight years now so I worked my way up from the bottom actually, and I've worked on lots of social care work on inspections supporting inspectors with data analysis, interviewing about adoption. I've written lots of reports for Ofsted on domestic abuse, neglect of older children, knife crime, the whole range of things. But yeah, I need a team who kind of do a lot of that work on education and social care.
CJ: So Donna tell us a bit about your care experience then.
DB: I went into care as a baby eight weeks old, I think, from what I understand, I spent the first nine years of that in foster care but moved around a fair bit, I think, the longest I lived anywhere it was three years, the shortest was sort of a few months, moved to school a lot. It was, it was, it wasn't good, to be honest it was, it was quite patchy and inconsistent, and I had lots of unplanned endings and some foster carers were not great, some, I had one in particular that was absolutely fabulous but lots of moving and lots of, lots of difficulty really and completely separate from my family very little contact with my brothers and sisters, if any, for periods of years at a time. When I was nine, I went back to live with my mum, I said back but went to live with her for the first time, and then spent sort of nine to 18 moving around various family members, temporary foster care, also very inconsistent and very kind of not very happy to be honest.
CJ: Sounds pretty tough, and I'm sure there'll be lots of people with similar experiences. Tell us about the process of leaving care and striking out on your own as a, as an adult.
DB: So that conversation sort of started around 14. It was when I moved in with an aunt, an uncle of mine I have to say my, my uncle, really wanted me there. I really wanted to help, but my auntie wasn't so keen so the compromise was that I would leave as soon as I'd finished my exams. So I knew, you know, very early on that I needed a plan of where to go, which I find quite stressful, he could put me under a lot of pressure. Pressure that didn't, to be honest, that didn't actually sort of hit me until my late 20s Because I just, I just got a job at 16 I worked and studied, and I just, I just powered through, and then. It wasn't until I was sort of 26/27 that it kind of hit me that I, you know, had been really stressful, and I hadn't really looked after myself very well, and I was in loads of debt. I'd been I'd had periods of homelessness for up to 6/7/8 months at a time sofa surfing, including my work and at Ofsted actually, many moons ago. I didn't have much support, I felt like it very much felt like a cliff edge that people talk about, and I was really underprepared because actually I was really excited for it. I wanted to leave care I hated being in care. I left the country to get that far away from it, and then find myself on my own, and in ways that I didn't expect. And, yeah, I just find it really hard and there was nowhere to go and I just felt like I couldn't fail, because if I failed I have nobody to, to call. And I find that really hard.
CJ: Tell us about how that drove your path to where you are now than because by any measure, you're incredibly successful within us that you do lots of impressive sounding qualifications, and a great team and job here. Have the other two things linked.
DB: Yeah, I mean, I would say, in a couple of ways really, the main one is I wanted to spend my career helping vulnerable children, either on the edge of care or encounter or leaving care, and I didn't really didn't really mind what profession that was in, to be honest, I just wanted to do that so everything I've studied has all been around child law or family law. My PhD was in children's rights, so I've just spent years learning, listening to loads of care leavers myself actually. And learning about lots of experiences that are different to my own, and then try and find ways to help. I think the other thing is, for me, I felt like I needed to make sure that I could be totally independent. and the best way that I could do that was to just work. And while, you know, I think from the outside, that does look like Oh, isn't that amazing she's got this amazing career and well done and that's, those things are true, but I also had periods of really poor mental health, periods have nowhere to live. You know I've had, I've only just finished another round of therapy this last year for a whole range of stuff so it's not, it's not all about what it looks like on paper, is it. Yeah, it's still, it's true really that care never leaves you, I think, I think I'm learning that at 35.
AC: Still, I mean you are hugely successful and your storytellers, tells us a lot about you and your determination, the resilience in really, really tough challenging times. When we think about care leavers as a group, it's, I mean it's really sad to see that actually, there isn't always that success is there in your people's lives. What do you think made it different for you, or what does it make you know what was it that made you end up where you are, because what as I listened to you that there's lots about you being determined, but is that, is that determination from inside yours or was it influenced by other people?
DB: That idea about what success means is quite slippery, isn't it, because I think when I was younger and I went to university I thought I'm just such a success for what I've done, coming from this situation. As I've gotten older, though, success means different things to me. Now, success means having good mental health, which I didn't have for a very long time, Success means looking after myself eating well, having good relationships with people around me feeling safe. Success for other people, is, is building their own family having children. I think, academically, I did well because I liked learning and I was interested in school was my safe place. So, you know, I know that's not the same for a lot of people but for me, when I went to school I could be myself, I wasn't at home where I didn't feel safe and I was quite scared and shy and quiet I went to school and I made friends and I chatted and I loved it I did every after school activity going just so I didn't have to go home. But all of that stuff sort of culminated in in meaning I had options I guess at 18 but lots of care leavers, you know come to that later in life. By 30 caregivers have pretty much caught up. For me catching up, then catching up on mental health catching up on having somewhere to live, having a community around me, for others catching up means going back to school or finding out what career it is they want to do so, can we know enough about it.
AC: I suppose as a, as a regional director in the North West. What worries me is, is around care leavers are not in education, employment and training. I know that's just one aspect of life, and success isn't everything that but if you use the word options and it does give you options. When you've got education.
DB: It's not about, it's not always about the destination I think that's the other thing, it's about your journey getting there. So I think the main thing for care leavers, they're not supported enough to make that journey and through young adulthood, fun and pleasant and happy and you know, exploring life, And part of that is finding a job or a career or a passion that you can kind of live on is definitely a part of that. I suppose it's just, it's just the idea that it's all about particular measures of success is the if we lose sight of the fact that it's also about having friends it's also about feeling safe, it's also about feeling like you belong somewhere. So by having a good relationship with yourself, like you like yourself you enjoy your own company, but all of those things are all hurdles in and of themselves, obviously having a job and having some money in the bank helps. That makes things easier. So I definitely would be worried. And I, you know, I think for any of us care experienced or not leaving school or college during a pandemic is, is a worrying, like, it's stressful what what are they going to do?
CJ: Thanks very much to Andrew and Donna and thanks to you all for listening. You can find Ofsted talks on our Twitter feed, on our GovUK page and on Podbean.