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Outsourced children’s care homes provide poorer quality care, research says

For-profit children's homes provide poorer quality services for children in care than homes run by local authorities, according to research from the University of Oxford’s Department for Social Policy and Intervention.

11/10/22

Outsourced children’s care homes provide poorer quality care, research says

New research has found that children’s homes in the private sector, on average, provide poorer quality services than those run by local authorities.

The research reveals for-profit children’s homes receive worse Ofsted ratings than local authority homes in all inspection domains. It also finds that local authorities with higher levels of outsourcing to for-profit homes are also rated worse for their children social care services, and that for-profit homes violate more legal requirements of their care provision.

Dr Anders Bach-Mortensen, Carlsberg Foundation Visiting Fellow from Oxford’s Department for Social Policy and Intervention, says: “It is well known, huge profits are being made by companies running these homes, but the response has typically been that the quality of the services justify the costs. Our research suggests quality is not the same in both sectors and should be of concern to commissioners.”

Outsourcing and for-profit provision have become a dominant practice in the children's residential social care sector in England but, the researchers note, there is a critical absence of evidence of the impact this has had on the quality of these services - and the experience of children in care.

The research has now been published in Social Science and Medicine.

Benjamin Goodair, co-author and doctoral researcher, says the analysis shows the outsourcing of these services has not delivered as promised in terms of securing high service quality for children in care.

“This is a cause for concern because most children are currently accommodated by for-profit providers.”

The researchers created a dataset from more than 13,000 Ofsted inspections of children’s homes, the providers being inspected by Ofsted, the area of operation and a measure of deprivation of that area, spanning from 2014 to 2021.

The authors note caution is needed in terms of regulating the sector going forward because many of the problems faced by local authorities are exacerbated by a lack of appropriate places, and the role of for-profit providers cannot be replaced without substantial coordination and long-term planning.

“The outsourcing of these services has not delivered...high service quality for children in care...[and] most children are currently accommodated by for-profit providers,” said Goodair.

The Children’s Homes Association (CHA), the membership body for children’s homes in England and Wales, said it welcomed research into the sector, but challenged some of the claims made in the research.

“As acknowledged by the authors, there are limitations to how the results of this analysis of Ofsted judgements can be generalised to the sector today, and the paper therefore cannot be taken as an accurate representation of the current state of the sector,” the CHA, whose members are mostly private sector children’s homes, said.

“A critical factor is that, due to limitations of Ofsted data, it is not possible for such analysis to take into account whether the judgements considered are of like-for-like organisations or services, or the varying level of need or risk of children and young people cared for in the homes.

“We strongly challenge the intimation that outsourced providers ‘cream’ or ‘cherry pick’ the children they care for, and the research provides no evidence to support this notion, which we would argue strays into polemic debate. It is our opinion that it is in fact the children with the highest levels of need and risk that are cared for in the independent sector.”

Read the full paper, ‘Outsourcing and children's social care: A longitudinal analysis of inspection outcomes among English children's homes and local authorities’, here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953622006293

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