Department for Education's Chris Wormald defends cross-government strategy to help care leavers

DfE perm sec tells MPs on the Public Accounts committee that Care Leavers Strategy – sharply criticised by the spending watchdog – marks "very important step" in improving support for young people leaving care system

By matt.foster

07 Sep 2015

The Department for Education's most senior official has defended the support given to young people leaving the care system, after a report by the spending watchdog highlighted the patchy provision of services across the country.

According to the latest figures, more than 10,000 young people aged over 16 left residential or foster care in 2013-14. Local authorities – under a framework agreed by the DfE – are obliged to provide those care leavers with extra support in areas including housing, health and skills until at least the age of 21, in a bid to ensure that their transition to adulthood is as normal as possible.

But a July report by the National Audit Office spending watchdog was critical of the progress made by a major 2013 cross-government initiative aiming to improve care leaver support services, only a third of which have been rated as "good" by the Ofsted inspectorate.

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The NAO's report warned that the Care Leavers Strategy – involving eight government departments including DfE, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Department for Work and Pensions – did not appear to have been "set up as an effective programme", and lacked adequate data to track the outcomes for many of those leaving care.

"There was no strong evidence of government working in an integrated way; limited implementation capability; no regular report of progress or outcomes; and no evdience of a sustained effort to continuously improve," the watchdog said.

Appearing before MPs on the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, DfE permanent secretary Chris Wormald said he accepted that there was "considerably more to do" to improve care leaver support. 

But he said it was only DfE's 2013 decision to hand Ofsted the power to make specific judgements on the care leaver services provided by local authorities that had "shone light" on the scale of the problem.

"The purpose of having a separate inspection judgement was to shine a light on this extremely important area in a way that had not been done before," he told the committee.

"We were not, at the  time, expecting to find a great picture. And that is exactly what the Ofsted reports have shown. That is a very important step forward in itself."

Wormald said it would be hard to point to any developed nation which believed it had "cracked this issue" and that "variability appears to an issue internationally".

"It does appear that this is something that governments, collectively, have not done as well on as they should [have] in the past. I'm not sure I can say that is a particular set of peoples' fault. But, one way or another, the state has not done as well as it should across this issue."

Paul Kissack, the DfE's director general for children's services, meanwhile confirmed that the department was in the process of intervening to improve care leaver services offered by two local authorities that had been rated as "inadequate" by Ofsted.

And he said that two more authorities – Southampton and Bristol – were involved in "ongoing discussions" with the DfE on the quality of their own provision.

According to the NAO's report, local authorities spent more than £265m on providing care leaver services in 2013-14.

Alison O'Sullivan, president  of the Association of Directors of Children's Services – which represents those working in the sector – agreed that there continued to be a "mixed picture" in the way councils supported young people leaving care.

But she backed the continuation of the cross-government strategy, saying it represented "a very good baseline" for overhauling the sector.

"I think if we could get to a point where the spirit of the 2013 strategy was fully implemented – and I know everybody's  committed to doing that at local level as well as national – then that would represent improvement."

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