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New era for supporting children

Supported accommodation providers body aims to help spread good practice as inspections loom.

It is hard to believe that over two years have passed since the launch of the draft regulations and initial consultation by Ofsted and the Department for Education on supported accommodation providers. Yet we enter 2024 amid one of the largest retrospective regulatory programmes delivered across children’s services.

This sector has been known by many names over the years, some more appropriate than others; semi-independent living, independent living, SaILS, unregulated, unsuitable, careless…the list is long. Now, after years of campaigning, we finally have a name and regulatory framework that brings credibility and identity – supported accommodation, as defined by The Supported Accommodation (England) Regulations 2023.

Sector challenges

The introduction of the regulations was never going to be an easy task – the unification of such a diverse sector was going to be even harder. I have often spoken about the diversity of supported accommodation and the challenges that would be faced during the transition into regulation; the sector is made up of more than 1,000 providers from the public, private, and third sectors, each delivering a model that differs in some way to the rest.

Having existed for decades in an unregulated environment, albeit not out of choice for many of the providers I am privileged to work alongside, we have each taken our own stance on self-regulation and service delivery, often influenced by our own personal and professional experiences.

While it is clear to us all that the lack of regulations has created an environment that has permitted occasions of questionable practice, inappropriate placement decisions, and poorly delivered outcomes for some children, there is a real belief that excellence exists within supported accommodation. For many children aged 16 and 17, supported accommodation is a positive experience in their journey to adulthood.

The National Association of Supported Accommodation Partners (NASAP) has been launched to harness the power of collaboration, uniting key stakeholders from across the sector, and to enhance the quality of supported accommodation services through shared practice, and, therefore, improving the overall outcomes and experiences for young people.

We recognise that there is work to be done, and we believe that while the regulations form part of the solution, real change is only going to happen if it happens from within, through accountability, peer support, and showcasing best practice for others to learn from. This is what NASAP is there to do.

For much of last year, the focus was on registering with Ofsted by the October deadline; the real challenge will come through the commencement of inspections from this April.

The introduction of the three outcomes model from Ofsted is a sensible approach to take when considering the diversity of service delivery models and the uniqueness of providers. However, there are many questions yet to be answered: What does “good” or “outstanding” look like? What approach will be taken when enforcement action is needed? Will the same supportive stance that has been evident during the registration process be taken by Ofsted during inspection?

What is certain, is that NASAP welcomes the continued open dialogue already experienced with Ofsted and is assured by the clear learning approach being taken during the registration and pilot inspection processes.

We all agree that regulation was needed and that the long-term impact will result in better outcomes for children and improved confidence in service delivery.

But what about the unintended consequences? What about the young people that have previously been placed in supported accommodation that were very clearly in need of care, and not support, and therefore should have been in a children’s home or with a foster family?

There have been multiple reports of providers having their supported accommodation applications placed on hold due to the identification that they were instead acting as an unregistered children’s home. This leaves the provider with a choice to make: end the placement of the young person and continue their supported accommodation registration, or register as a children’s home.

Additional pressures

With the provision of suitable children’s home placements already an area of concern, it raises the question as to how local authorities will cope with the additional pressures that are going to be felt, as more children placed within supported accommodation are identified as needing a children’s home placement instead.

Unregulated homes of any kind are not something we should support or encourage, and our approach to educating our members on appropriate admissions and packages of support aims to reduce the risk of supported accommodation services being accessed due to the lack of an alternative.

We are all accountable for ensuring the right home is found for each child that needs one, and while we may not have a solution to all the challenges faced right now, we are committed to ensuring that where supported accommodation is a suitable option for a child, it is delivered effectively, with a child’s best interests at the forefront of all decisions.