The allegations that emerged last week about a children’s home in Cardiff were shocking.
Four former employees of Ty Coryton – a residential home and specialist school for children with needs associated with autism – spoke out to claim that youngsters were ‘abused’ and mistreated.
Experts have already drawn parallels between the latest allegations involving residential schools for children and the Winterbourne View care home for adults, where a pattern of serious abuse of adults with learning disabilities and/or autism was uncovered.
Visiting professor at the University of South Wales, Edwin Jones, said it could not be assumed that the reports coming out of Ty Coryton were ‘one-off, isolated issues’.
Earlier this year police confirmed they were investigating the closure of two Doncaster-based children’s homes suspended by Ofsted amid safeguarding concerns – Fullerton House School home and the Wilsic Hall School children’s home.
The Doncaster homes had already led to comparisons with Winterbourne View.
As one local government commissioner told The MJ earlier this year: ‘I think residential schools will be like the next Winterbourne View. The parallels can’t be lost.
‘It seems that adult commissioning learned some lessons, but maybe these didn’t get to children’s services. It definitely feels the same. For example, complex clients, behaviours that challenge in large institutions, and [children being] out of sight and far from home.
‘Families sign their children over at the point they can no longer cope, then local authorities, at great expense, warehouse them miles away – betting purely on Ofsted who only go in once a year or so.’
It all feels very familiar to the findings of a November 2017 Government-commissioned review by director of the Council for Disabled Children, Dame Christine Lenehan, who spoke of inadequate monitoring of placements by some councils, and warned of the risk that children placed away from home were ‘out of sight and out of mind’.
These institutions have been even more out of sight during the repeated COVID lockdowns over the last 15 months.
Speaking last month, Dame Christine said: ‘There has been some progress since my review but there is further to go. Nothing ever moves as fast as you would want it to.
‘We do not think we have a system that’s fit for purpose yet. I think there is more work to do to ensure we have a proper national strategy for children placed away from home.’
These schools care for some of the most vulnerable youngsters in our society and councils that manage to choose the right placement can really help a child to thrive.
But local authorities appear reluctant to go on the record about their placement decisions, their oversight and the impact when things go wrong.
Getting answers from the children’s homes themselves can also be difficult.
Both of the Doncaster homes are operated by Hesley Group, which has hired consultancy WA to respond to any tricky queries.
WA, which promises it will guide clients through ‘knotty business challenges to deliver significant commercial results’, said in a statement on behalf of Hesley that it met all the requirements for improvement listed by inspectors ahead of a 6 June deadline and would be ‘working with Ofsted as they evaluate our progress and monitor our compliance’.
But some have questioned Ofsted’s oversight and whether they are sometimes too slow to act.
For example, Fullerton House School’s children’s home was found to benefit from the leadership of a ‘committed manager’ when it was rated good overall in a full inspection in November 2019.
But an ‘escalation in concerns’ led to a monitoring visit in June 2020, which uncovered a ‘developing culture in which a small number of staff are bullying each other’.
There was then a nine-month gap until another monitoring visit in March, which was only prompted by an anonymous whistleblowing complaint.
The report following that visit read: ‘There have been several allegations and whistleblowing concerns about staff practice, which have been raised both historically and more recently. These allegations and concerns show a repeated pattern over time of poor practice.
‘Many of the staff recruited have very little or no experience of working with children, particularly those who have learning disabilities.’
Ofsted eventually served a notice of suspension and a further inspection later in March found a ‘systemic inability to safeguard and protect children,’ with ‘weak’ leadership and management of the service and youngsters ‘suffering unnecessary harm’.
The latest report read: ‘There are serious and widespread concerns in multiple areas of practice relating to the care that children receive. This places children at serious risk of harm. Some children have suffered actual physical harm.’
This and other similar examples have led some children’s services experts to question Ofsted’s reliability.
Chris Waterman, the first executive director of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said Ofsted should have visited Fullerton House more frequently after the identification of the bullying culture in June 2020.
He called for an ‘independent review’ of how the situation at Fullerton House developed.
However, an Ofsted spokesperson pointed out that all children’s homes must commission an independent visitor to review and report on the quality of care provided for children on a monthly basis.
They said that between June 2020 and March 2021 these monthly reports did not highlight any significant concerns.
However, in Ofsted’s November 2019 report, the inspectorate highlighted that these monthly reports were ‘consistently sent late to the regulator’, ‘lack evaluation’ and ‘do not regularly seek the views of stakeholders’.
The report added: ‘This impedes the independent visitor’s ability to make a well-considered opinion about whether the children and young people are safeguarded effectively, and whether their wellbeing is promoted.’
On the wider role of Ofsted, Mr Waterman is unforgiving.
‘I’m not convinced that Ofsted is robust and I’m not sure it’s fit for purpose,’ he said. ‘Consistency of judgement is a concern. The big question is who monitors what Ofsted does.
‘The context is Ofsted has suffered loads of cuts but I think we need a fresh look at Ofsted.’
Dame Christine pointed out that Ofsted ‘can only inspect to the standards they’re given to inspect to’ and there was more support for the inspectorate from the current ADCS president, Charlotte Ramsden.
Ms Ramsden said: ‘It’s a symptom of the system that homes are struggling to meet the needs of the children who we are seeking placements for.
‘We are keen to see a rethink about how homes are regulated and inspected, and are we actually regulating them in the right way for the future.
‘Ofsted is very robust in its inspection and regulation of homes, and we know that during this COVID year they’ve been doing things differently, but they still have kept a very close lens on individual homes.’
The Ofsted spokesperson said it continued to carry out ‘very targeted visits of children’s homes where there were concerns’ despite suspending all routine inspections in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Those visits have uncovered a number of issues.
Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, a voluntary sector membership organisation, said: ‘There are really quite shocking stories coming out of inspections. Clearly, children are being failed by the system as we have created it.
‘Austerity has impacted everything. There isn’t a strategy. We need a sense of direction and public investment.
‘It’s like the wild west at the moment. If someone can set up a new children’s home it’ll probably be used because we haven’t got enough.’
Dame Christine added: ‘The extent of private provision worries me. The Government appears to be resistant to looking at the market. Some local authorities want to abolish private provision but what do you do with the children?’
Unfortunately, the reports from children’s homes around the country and the concerns about Ofsted’s role have only made this question even harder to answer.