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A third of children in care aged 16 and 17 were in unregulated settings last year, according to Department for Education figures.
Young child asylum seekers and others housed under Article 20 – rather than care orders – were disproportionately represented in these establishments, despite the sector being largely provided by the private sector, according to statistics released Thursday, July 14.
The findings come ahead of the introduction next year of Ofsted’s regulation of such placements against new national standards, following widespread protection concerns, particularly in relation to the placement of children in settings such as caravans, installations or barges.
However, the policy has proven controversial as services – unlike their counterparts in children’s homes – will not be required to provide ‘care’ to youngsters and Ofsted will inspect providers as a whole, not in specific areas. individual contexts.
This has prompted accusations from child rights activists of a two-tier system in which 16- and 17-year-olds in these settings receive inadequate benefits and are at greater risk, compared to to those in foster care or children’s homes.
Decline in the use of unregulated care after a sharp increase
The number of 16- and 17-year-olds receiving unregulated care fell 7% in the year to March 2021, to 5,980, after more than doubling between 2013 and 2020. just over three-quarters were 17 years old in establishments which, since September 2021, have been prohibited for those under 16.
There has been a shift in provision from independent structures to semi-independent structures – which involve a greater level of support.
Of the 5,980, 4,120 (69%) were living semi-independently, almost double the 2,210 who were living it in 2018. Meanwhile, 1,860 were living independently, almost 1,000 less than three years ago.
Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children made up a disproportionate number of those living in unregulated accommodation, accounting for 32% of those living independently and 34% of those living semi-independently, compared to just 18% of all 16 and 17 years old. in care.
The majority – 69% in independent settings and 70% in semi-independent settings, compared to 41% of all children in care aged 16 and 17 – were in section 20 accommodation. where a child is cared for with the agreement of the holders of parental responsibility (PR) or because no one has a PR for him, such as for young asylum seekers, or because he has been abandoned.
The vast majority (77% for independent structures, 84% for semi-independent structures) of children in unregulated accommodation lived in private settings, compared to only 54% of all children aged 16 and 17 in care. The proportion was similar to placements in children’s homes, 79% of which were provided by the private sector in March 2022.
While children’s rights campaigners have argued that such establishments should not be subject to less regulation than children’s homes, councils have expressed concern that regulation of so-called supported accommodation could worsen the situation. insufficient placements for children in care.
Speaking to council trustees at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) conference last week, Ofsted’s National Director of Social Care, Yvette Stanley, said: “We know that regulating this provision for the first time will lead to unregulated consequences. I know you will be discussing with your suppliers whether they intend to register and form contingency plans if they do not.
She said Ofsted would take a flexible approach to regulating the sector, which will be called “supported housing”.
Although such environments are meant to provide support, not care, Stanley pointed out that the two types of provision cannot be easily separated.
“We absolutely do not want providers to think that providing even temporary ‘care’ to young people will mean they are automatically operating illegally,” she said. “High-quality supported housing should be caring, kind and nurturing. We will specify this in the scope and inspection guidelines. »
And although Ofsted inspects supported housing providers as a whole, Stanley said inspectors would be able to look at “poor or declining” environments.
Risks related to the delay in the inspection of the parameters
While Ofsted will start registering supported accommodation providers in April 2023, it will not start inspecting them until April 2024, Stanley confirmed.
However, Jonathan Stanley, senior partner at the National Center of Excellence for Residential Child Care (NCERCC), said the sector needed to be watched earlier, amid the fact that it was about the same size as the residential sector for children, with some placements costing “five-figure sums a week”.
He added: “It needs urgent transitional arrangements for regulation and supply/commissioning. It cannot be left for two years.