JimKenThe latest data pack from DFE, on improving permanency arrangements, is an extensive and useful one. CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy looks into how it could impact on placement stability:
This week’s data pack from DFE, on improving permanency arrangements, is part of the Department’s drive to ensure that there is greater consistency in planning for and achieving, permanent placements for children – where appropriate. It has the distinct advantage of presenting its material without undue reference to adoption as the only or preferred method of meeting permanency needs.

This briefing provides some more detail on the pack and its intended uses, than we can set out in our normal introductory pages; and illustrates some of the useful questions that the pack highlights for local authorities and practitioners, as they consider their permanency arrangements and performance.

In short, the pack draws together a wide range of the available data on looked after children including that which relates to placement stability, and provides a series of broadly research-based points about the importance of each set of figures to permanency planning.

The pack then provides a list of policy, management, and practice questions, in relation to each identified theme, that local authorities and their staff can use to review and improve on their current performance.

This data pack is intended to:
· illustrate key factors that contribute to placement stability for looked-after children and for those children returning home from care
· inform the strategic and operational decisions taken by directors of children’s services and lead members, commissioners, managers, social workers and independent reviewing officers

Whatever its other merits and leaving aside questions about the way the information may be shaped, this seems a broadly welcome innovation – putting comparative data in service providers’ and commissioners’ hands, and giving them the opportunity to reflect on the way forward locally, rather than imposing specific direction from the centre.

My one slight reservation about the pack is that its title may obscure its use as a tool to improve placement stability, in and of itself, as well as a route to ensuring better permanency arrangements for children.

That said what does the pack cover? The pack is set out in two main sections. The first explores how placement stability can be monitored and reviewed to provide a more accurate reflection of how stability is achieved for all looked after children. In particular this section focuses on numbers of placements, length of time in placement, placement types and age groups, and the impact of high numbers of placements on educational attainment.

The second main section of the pack provides a detailed analysis of children returning home after they cease to be looked after, and the factors that may have an impact on successful and sustainable return home. In particular this section focuses on a detailed analysis of children who returned home after ceasing to be looked after in 2012; and children who returned home during 2006-7 and had re-entered care by 31 March 2012.

Some key statistics to illustrate what’s covered in the first of the main sections include:
· 67% of LAC had only one placement during the most recent year, a proportion which has been growing slowly but steadily over the last few years
· 89% of LAC had up to two placements during the year
· But 11% had 3 or more placements during the year. The report argues that this relatively small number means that LAs should have time to look at and act on the individual cases concerned

To add value to the analyses, the pack provides information on placement stability and age at entering care. This shows that children aged under 5 and over 15 were the least likely to have had just a single placement during the year, but says that of the 240 children with 10 or more placements during the year, 230 were aged 13 or over.

The pack also looks at the link between reasons for entering care and placement stability, and says that children who enter care due to family dysfunction were far more likely to have had 10 or more placements. The most stable group were those who entered care because of disability.

Number of placements by region and local authority are discussed with the pack noting that patterns of placement stability across the country are fairly consistent. But it says that the areas with the highest proportion of children experiencing ten or more placements were in the North West, London and the South East.

The rest of the first section looks at placement stability including in relation to different types of foster care and to residential care. The section also provides information on the types of orders to which children were subject, and on links between placement stability and educational attainment. Some key quoted figures are:
· 75% of LAC were cared for in foster placements. Of these, 15% were looked after by relatives or friend foster carers
· Long term foster care provides stability for a significant minority of fostered children – 17%, of those aged between 5 and 18yrs old had been in the same foster placement for more than five years
· 52% of 10 to 15yr olds, looked after under a care order and in care for more than five years, had been in the same placement for more than five years
· 20% of children with their friends or family had been in that placement for more than five years compared to 11% of those with other foster carers
· nearly a quarter of children in children’s homes had been looked after for over five years, but just 2% had been in the same placement for over five years
· 43% of children with just a single placement during 2011-12 achieved 5+ A*-C grades at GCSE compared to 13% of those who had more than three placements

The second main section of the report looks at children who return home from care. It provides information on the number of children who return home as a proportion of all looked after children who cease to be looked after, the age, legal status and reason for first entering care of the children who return home, the number of children who return home by local authority (as a proportion of all children who cease to be looked after).

Some key statistics/research findings from this section of the report are:
· Children who return home from care are the largest single group of children who cease to be looked after in any one year
· But the proportion of LAC who returned home from care dropped from 49 to 39% between 2004 and 2008
· Research shows that 47% of children who return home re-entered care and almost a third of their experiences were poor quality
· In total, 64% of children who returned home experienced at least one failed return and a third had come in and out of care twice or more
· Returning home to family was the most common reason why children ceased to be looked after, at 37% of the total
· The longer children have been looked after in the latest period of care, the less likely it is that they will go back to their parents
· Very low number of children on care orders returned home compared to other destinations
· Children who came into care as a result of parental illness or disability or acute family stress are the most likely to return home. Those least likely to return came into care as a result of absent parenting

The rest of the report provides general information on the costs associated with returning home from care, including a cost-calculator, and a series of case studies which illustrate both processes and costs for a number of care scenarios.

As noted earlier, each section of the report provides – usually brief – discussion of the implications of the figures presented. Those are then turned into a series of questions designed to enable local authorities (and practitioners) to check and compare their own approaches and performance. Annex B sets out a summary of these questions.

It’s difficult to illustrate how these checklists work, in a briefing of this sort, without simply replicating them. But it seemed to me that they are where much of the value of the data pack lies.

Just an example, the first section of the annex raises questions about:
· The proportion looked after children who have experienced more than 10 placements in the previous year and how that compares to previous years
· What is known about the needs profile of the children and families concerned
· The proportion of looked after children who experienced three or more placements in the previous year and how that compares to previous years
· Changes to service provision over relevant recent years
· LA understanding of their LAC age profile
· The need for specialist interventions for certain age groups 

The full checklists certainly tee up many of the arguments about what matters in achieving placement stability, although I think their relevance to permanency work perhaps needs a broader set of discussions than is developed in the paper. The way the checklists point to specific policy and practice implications will no doubt also raise questions about some of the detailed interpretations made.

That said, and with the other caveats noted in this briefing, the pack unquestionably puts a useful, collated set of data and arguments in local hands that should better enable authorities, and their staff, to consider and adjust their own practice.