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Criminal Care? · 10 Oct 2019

Good practice and facing regulation of 16+ accommodation in Central Bedfordshire

Earlier this year, we were invited to meet with Sharon Deacon, Quality Assurance Manager for Central Bedfordshire. We were intrigued by her job title and keen to hear what her role involved.

Sharon is a qualified social worker with a background in running children’s homes and working for fostering agencies. She quality assures wherever they have children placed. Her job isn’t a statutory role and it isn’t usual to have this position within a local authority. The creation of this role in Central Bedfordshire was, she feels, forward thinking.

Sharon looks at children’s homes, secure units where children are based on welfare grounds and 16+ services and is expanding her role to look at fostering agencies in the next few months. She travels out of area if children are placed in other local authority areas. Central Bedfordshire Council are, we were told, strict in checking quality before placing and are working hard to raise standards.

Part of Sharon’s role is building relationships with providers. This helps her get better insights into the quality of the service, makes it easier to tackle problems and facilitates the flow of communication. It also encourages providers to access training offered by the local authority and to come together with other providers in a bi-annual forum. The forum also gives Sharon a chance to raise sector wide issues with providers, provide training and give providers a chance to talk about concerns and issues as a group. She holds two forums: one for Ofsted regulated providers and the other for 16+ unregulated providers.

There were, we heard, some providers offering a good standard of accommodation but many needed to pull their socks up now in anticipation of inevitable regulation

Sharon invited us to present to providers at the next two forums, which took place in September. We were included in a training agenda that also covered a talk by the local Head of the Youth Offending Team on criminal exploitation and one given by the local health service about Chemsex. We spoke about our work to reduce unnecessary criminalisation, the impact of having a childhood criminal record, including the potential for non-conviction information such as call-outs to children’s homes to be disclosed and the role they, as carers, could play in supporting children at the police station and achieving better outcomes, drawing on our newly published step-by-step guide. The response was positive and both groups said they would like appropriate adult training to be delivered by the local authority.

Sharon and her colleagues did not flinch in giving feedback about conditions in the unregulated accommodation. There were, we were told, some providers offering a good standard of accommodation but many needed to pull their socks up now in anticipation of inevitable regulation. No surprises to anyone who had watched Newsnight over the summer, which has reported on the dire conditions and the concerns of police and the local authority about some 16+ accommodation in Bedfordshire.

The concerns were well-summarised by the two Quality Assistants who presented to the group. The Quality Assistants roles were filled by two young adults with recent experience of living in 16+. The benefits to the Quality Assistants were gaining valuable work experience and having the chance to voice their views and have their experience acknowledged and appreciated; the benefits to Central Bedfordshire were much greater, in the experienced and expert eye that was cast on the sector. Their primary task was to inspect 16+ accommodation with Sharon and report on the standard, highlighting areas of good practice and issues. They came across as fair and objective: good practice was praised; bad practice was objectively and rationally explained.

The list of issues they asked 16+ providers to consider presented a shocking picture of the conditions some children are living in. This was their shopping list:

  • Fresh mattress or mattress cover always needed
  • More than one set of bed sheets
  • Curtains and blinds
  • Bathroom mats
  • Cutlery/tin openers/crockery
  • Aerials for all TVs
  • Bathroom plugs
  • Condition of the house e.g. repairing damage
  • Toilet brushes
  • Mirrors
  • Door locks
  • More than one staff member on shift
  • Homely touches
  • Is the provider teaching independence skills/ key work sessions/ social skills to help yp?
  • Is the provider supporting health issues?
  • Is the provider helping yp access food banks/ emergency/ additional food if needed?
  • Moving in packs including emergency toiletries, useful telephone numbers and details of who to contact if you had a concern.

One of the Quality Assistants pointed out that if you went to the food bank it was a problem if you couldn’t open the tins you got there because you didn’t have a tin opener. That is such a shocking statement. Why are 16 and 17-year-old children in the care of the state relying on food banks? Why aren’t they being housed in basically equipped accommodation?

Sharon convened a group exercise to ascertain providers’ thoughts on regulation which provided some fascinating insights. The consensus was that providers were aware some form of regulation was on the cards and that they welcomed it.

The benefits of regulation were recognised: better standards; clearer standards; guidelines; consistency/ standardisation; filtering out of those who are in it for the wrong reasons; training; more support; a voice for the 16+ sector; recognition of skills and experience; less anxiety on the part of local authorities; transparency as to what other providers are doing; more joint/collaborative working; clarity over grey areas, such as the administration of medication; knowledge of specialists providers; effective moving on strategies for young people; social workers knowing what providers deliver. The perceived disadvantages were much fewer: there had been concerns about the additional costs but these were brushed off as standard business expenditure; some felt that the sector might get swamped by larger providers; there were worries about how to prepare for an inspection.

Sharon’s work in Central Bedfordshire provides an excellent example of what local authorities can and should be doing to improve the quality of residential care. It isn’t enough to just leave it up to Ofsted and rely on what may be an out-of-date rating for a home. Even worse, not knowing about the unregulated 16+ accommodation that children are being placed in. Local authorities need to be proactive in getting to know the homes they are sending children to and in facilitating the kind of inspection, training and forum that are offered in Central Bedfordshire.

Claire Sands


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