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  • Writer's pictureJohn Copps

A regional revolution in fostering recruitment

Working in regional ‘clusters’, councils are building and testing a new approach to foster carer recruitment through a government-funded programme. John Copps and Mark Owers outline the impact on the future of fostering. A version of this article was originally published in Children & Young People Now.

Over the past few months, groups of local authorities have been forming regional clusters to deliver fostering services, establishing what will eventually be a network of 10 partnerships across England.

In April, Fostering for East Midlands, a collaboration of four councils (Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire) went live, and was soon followed by Foster 4, involving eight councils in the North West; Local Community Fostering, involving six councils from north east London; and Foster with West London; Foster with Us; and Fostering South West.

All these join the “pathfinder” hub in the North East that has been running since the end of 2023 as part of the Department for Education funded initiative.

The new services have been honing and sharpening their approaches before launching more public campaigns during Foster Care Fortnight in late May.

Here, we outline what these new services are and what they hope to achieve, what this reform means for the future of fostering and where they fit into the overall children’s social care reform agenda.

Scale of the challenge

The children’s social care system in England is largely a fostering system – around seven in 10 placements are with foster carers – but there is a downward trend in the number of applications to be carers, falling from 10,520 in 2018 to 8,010 in 2023. This leaves us with a national shortfall and not enough homes for children who need them.

Sarah Thomas, chief executive of The Fostering Network, is acutely aware of the challenge. “The data shows the immense pressure the fostering system is under,” she says. “There simply aren’t enough foster carers to meet the rising number of children coming into care.”

The cost of this situation is felt both in financial and human terms. The 2022 Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) study into children’s social care found private providers “making materially higher profits, and charging materially higher prices, than we would expect if this market were functioning effectively”.

More pressing than this, however, is the impact on vulnerable children. A lack of foster care placements, in the right places, means that they are not getting the loving homes they need.

The key changes

In 2022, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care recommended that the DfE launch a national recruitment drive for 9,000 additional carers.

The government responded by committing to a centrally-funded Fostering Recruitment and Retention Programme. It is this programme that has spurred the creation of the 10 Fostering Recruitment Hubs.

The aim of hubs is to do things differently. Katie Jones, hub manager for Foster for East Midlands, says: “Having the chance to focus purely on the recruitment and early stages of the fostering process has been truly refreshing. It is powerful to get a group of experienced and passionate professionals together all working towards the same goal.”

The most obvious change is the regional footprint of the new services. Part of the argument for this is that local authorities can do more working at scale. There are economies of scale in organising recruitment campaigns and delivering services.

For children with more complex needs, it offers options that would not be available to a single local authority.

Katie Jones, team manager at Foster for East Midlands, explains that they used funding to invest in systems which help them to “really understand where our enquiries come from, what might encourage or prevent a person from enquiring, and what we can do to help give them the information they need, at the stage when they need it”.

Collaboration between local authorities also provides more opportunity to share learning and expertise, with the strengths of one council complemented by the strengths of others.

Daniel Kenny, service lead at Foster with North East, says: “Working together as partner fostering services, our council fostering teams are bringing together collective in-depth knowledge about our communities and the needs of families, children and young people.”

An important area where many of the hubs are focused is creating a service that is more personal and responsive to prospective foster carers’ needs, to encourage and support them to the end of the recruitment journey.

Kenny reflects on how Foster with North East has changed this experience: “Applying to be a foster carer can be daunting and prospective foster carers don’t often know what to expect. When you get in touch with us, you will receive a warm welcome and a team that will work with you at a pace you’re comfortable with.”

On the ground learning

It is early days for the new recruitment hubs, but signs are positive. Foster with North East has all 12 North East local authorities agreeing to continue with the hub until April 2025. Foster for East Midlands has made a strong start, receiving an encouraging number of new contacts, initial visit bookings, enquiries and applications within its first two months.

Inevitably, implementing any new structures requires a process of change. This has meant extra costs – including agreeing terms of partnership, establishing new governance, staffing, technology infrastructure and support services – funded through a DfE grant.

Overall, the lessons suggest that success will hinge on the mindset of local authorities shifting to one of collaboration and sharing control. For many, this will be a significant gear change, moving from a position where they have competed with each other. This will require skilled leadership, resolve and time.

Next steps

Fostering Hubs have made a promising start, but have a way to go to demonstrate success.

Set within the context of a wider direction of travel in children’s services, they seem likely to become part of the landscape.

The Care Review expressed a clear inclination towards more regional working, with the proposed Regional Care Co-operatives (RCCs) the most obvious expression of this.

The government’s response to the review – Stable Homes, Built on Love – took up the theme stating that “delivering a regional programme for fostering recruitment and retention signals the first step in moving to deliver care for children in a regional model”.

The next move in this process has already begun with the DfE selecting two “pathfinder” RCCs.

There are many extraordinary fostering families who selflessly devote their lives, resources and homes to the most vulnerable children.

Overall, fostering is a success story – even if it is something we could do even better. Regional working is the next step in its evolution.

To find out more about the Fostering Recruitment & Retention Programme, click here.


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