Fostering and adoption are seen as the government's favoured outcomes for looked-after children. But the Care Matters white paper makes it clear that ministers still see residential child care as a positive option for some young people. Earlier this month, this view was bolstered further with the publication of the first national contract for the placement of children in residential children's homes. Although it only has voluntary status, the contract has been well received by both commissioners and providers and is expected to be widely used for new placements, as well as for existing placements when they come up for review. Many local authorities are working to individual separate contracts with providers, resulting in a complicated system full of duplication. The new contract will standardise arrangements and make the system more transparent. Jonathan Stanley, manager of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, says that many councils are contracting with providers rather than actually commissioning. Research from March 2007 for the Greater London Association of Directors of Social Services backs this up showing that 85% of placements were spot-purchased. Regional commissioning Some spot placements will always be necessary. But providers and commissioners expect demand for these to fall sharply once the new contract comes fully into force and councils increase commissioning with providers on a regional basis. "Commissioning means that you have to know what the needs of the children are who are going to be placed there, you need to know about the places that are available, and then you need to match them," says Stanley. "Commissioning is about being proactive rather than reactive." It is widely recognised that having a placement strategy for looked-after children, matching needs to placements, is best practice. However, a recent government-commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that few councils had any such strategy. Bradford Council is an exception. About three years ago it audited its children's homes provision and formed a commissioning strategy to fill the gaps it identified. The strategy involved the council taking the unusual step of building a number of new children's homes and commissioning three providers on a block basis. "It involved ensuring we had [enough] capacity in [in-house] children's homes and then sorting out partnerships to create capacity outside the local authority," says Denis Gale, Bradford's principal commissioning manager (children). Unlike traditional contracts, the new contract looks at the outcomes of the children being looked after rather than at the requirements of the service being provided, and has strong ties to the Every Child Matters agenda. John Lees, programme manager for children's services at the South West Centre of Excellence, welcomes this focus. He says: "The previous contracts came before Every Child Matters, and they don't do much about outcomes. The real strength of the new contract is that it focuses on these." Monitoring arrangements included in the document will enable intelligence on the outcomes and the way they are achieved to be gathered. This information will be highly valuable to councils and, in turn, lead to more informed commissioning, says Stanley. It is also set to be fed back to Ofsted, which is currently reviewing its inspection framework for residential care. Young-person centred The contract is based on young people's experiences of being in care, with the idea that they would be able to read it and recognise it is about them and the care they receive. A children's version is going to be produced, alongside versions in Braille and using symbols to ensure it is accessible to all young people. However, despite being young person-centred, there is recognition by the government that the document fails to adequately address some of the needs of disabled children, those with mental health problems and those who self-harm, and work is due to be carried out to rectify this oversight during the first year. Recent years have seen a rise in the number of small children's homes also providing education, and the contract reflects this by covering both.