Adoptions: Ofsted issues tougher new rules
Local authorities in England will only get an outstanding rating for adoption in future if they place children within 12 months, Ofsted says.
Its inspectors, who check children's services as well as schools, say delays can have a severe impact on children.
New arrangements put more emphasis on speed and on whether councils have kept brothers and sisters together.
One-in-five adoptions currently break down, reports suggest, with the average wait being two years and seven months.
But guidelines say local authorities in England should place a child with adoptive parents within 12 months of the decision being made to put them up for adoption.
The government has pledged to speed up the adoption process and cut the bureaucracy involved.
Children's Minister Tim Loughton welcomed the Ofsted announcement and said: "Finding stable placements for vulnerable looked after children must be a top priority for local authorities, but there is currently too much inconsistency and variation.
"I want to see radical improvements to ensure that all children who would benefit from adoption are placed as quickly as possible to make sure they get the start in life they deserve."
The heads of council children's services say they are committed to improving the adoption process - but that adoption is not the only way to find a permanent secure home for a child.
- Children in care : England - 65,520 Wales - 5,165 Northern Ireland - 2,606 Scotland - 15,288
- Adoptions of children in care: England - 3,050; Wales - 230 Northern Ireland - 64; Scotland - 455
- Source: Adoption UK, using latest available data
Councillor David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board, said councils were keen to reduce the wait but the issue could not be tackled through a "one-size fits-all approach".
"Adoption is right for some children, but for others long-term stability might best be found with friends and family through special guardianship," he said.
"We acknowledge that there is a variation in performance across councils and recognise that at times the system has been risk averse, but we want to work with government to change that and remove barriers that delay decisions, including tackling the significant delays in the family courts."
The prime minister has called for early adoption to be made a priority, saying that this greatly improves a vulnerable child's chances in life.
Ofsted will bring in the changes from April. As well as looking at delays, inspectors will look at:
- Whether adoption has been considered as an option for all children in care
- Evidence that adoption has been considered early and not "as a last resort"
- Whether siblings are adopted together where possible
- The vetting process for people who want to adopt
- Support given to those who adopt
John Goldup, Ofsted's deputy chief inspector, said the new framework "would make it much harder" to get a "good" or an "outstanding" rating.
"Everything we are publishing today is about raising our expectations for our children. It is essential that children in care, often the most vulnerable, get the very best support to have a happy, stable and fulfilling childhood, " he said.
"That is why we want to raise standards further and focus on what real difference is being made to children's lives.
"Our scrutiny of delays in the adoption process will help focus and bring forward a smooth and quicker adoption process. The earlier children are identified for adoption and placed with a family the better the chances that adoption will be successful."
In November, the government published details of how long adoptions took in different local authorities and other information, such as how well children in care did at school in each area.
Delays in adoption can often occur in the legal system.
Most children who are adopted now have been removed from parents who are judged by the authorities to be unable to look after them and parents will challenge the decisions in the family courts.
In previous generations, more would have been given up by their parents.
The body which represents the heads of children's services in councils in England, the Association of Directors of Children's Services, has said it is committed to adoption and to improving the current system for approving adopters - but that adoption is not the only way of providing children with a permanent home.
It says long-term fostering or arrangements where a child is put in the care of grandparents can also be good options for a child.
Experts say adoptions are not always suitable for older children, particularly teenagers, and that such adoptions are more likely to break down.
ADCS president Matt Dunkley said last week: "What is important is that the needs of the child are paramount in all such decisions, taking into account their age and any additional needs and the likelihood of finding an adoptive family for them.
"We must not over‐simply what it a complex and life-changing decision."