In Loco Parentis
by Celia Hannon
"Ever since I’ve been working in policy and research, children in care have remained the embarrassing (and expensive) anomaly to a range of government targets. Whilst over 60% of pupils across the country got 5 A*-C GCSEs this year, just 12% of looked after children did. The government has hailed as a success getting 6% of care leavers attending university last year (up from an incredible 1% in 2002), against a national figure of over 40%.
The fact remains that the huge increases in spending on care have only generated limited improvements. A quarter of the prison population, 80% of Big Issue sellers and half of the prostitutes in this country are care leavers.
The problem is that putting more funding into an unfit system will only produce more of the same: reform has to go hand in hand with funding. The government recognised this with the Care Matters White Paper, an ambitious plan to reform systems and structures dealing with children in care.
But changing systems and structures can never bring about real change unless the cultural and theoretical approach which underpins them changes too.
The publication of the Children, Schools and Families Committee report today took a huge step towards this – emphasizing the need to give foster families more respect and support and to change the view of residential care as a “last resort”. Most importantly, the Committee called for a fundamental re-think of the role of the “corporate parent” – the central concept of the entire care system.
This can only be welcomed. The system has been more “corporate” than “parent” for far too long and the Committee did well to question the government’s reluctance to increase the care leaving age beyond 18 when the average age for leaving home is now 24.
But there remains an inherent friction in the concept of the “corporate parent”– one that neither the government, nor the Committee’s report has recognized. The fact is, councils are currently trying to strike an uneasy balance between the “corporate” and the “parent”. They are striving for quality assurance and minimum standards, and maintaining a child’s attachment to their biological family on the one hand, with encouraging a sense of belonging (to a foster family or residential home) and continuity of support on the other.
As a result, they are achieving neither very well, and alienating foster carers, social workers and looked after children in the process.
Resolving this issue can only be achieved when the government faces up to the unfortunate fact that, in some cases – as Baby P showed – the state has to be a child’s parent, not just a corporate one, and so must strive to be a good one. Outcomes cannot be so poor in the care system than we are reluctant to move children into it from dangerous home environments."
Demos' forthcoming project, In Loco Parentis (supported by Barnardo's) will be considering how the concept of “a good parent” can be applied to the state for the first time, drawing on evidence from other countries and innovative approaches across the UK.