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A system in need of a radical reset

The care system is failing children and young people. Adults who spend time as children in the care system are 70% more likely to die prematurely than those who do not.[1] Care leavers are estimated to make up around a quarter of the adult prison population, despite the small percentage of children who enter care each year.[2] And in 2021, only 6% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 were known to be in higher education. Meanwhile, 41% were Not in Education, Employment, or Training, compared to just 12% of all young people of the same age group.[3] Worryingly, outcomes for children formally assigned as “in need” but not in care have been shown to be similarly poor.[4]

Dramatically reducing these unacceptably poor outcomes is both necessary and urgent. Necessary because, for some children, entering the care system is unavoidable. Urgent because there are growing numbers of vulnerable children and young people in England: the number of children in local authority care has increased by almost a quarter since 2010-11, the number of children formally identified as “in need” has grown by 12,500 over the same period and the number of children subject to a child protection plan has grown by almost 16% between 2013 and 2021. And the longer the system waits for a radical reset, the harder the problems will be to solve. Children in care are now often facing more complex challenges, with significant increases in cases relating to abuse or neglect, poor parental mental health and emotional abuse.[5]

But a better system is possible. When children do receive the right care, good outcomes can follow. Currently, the system which drives so many poor outcomes leaves too many in care with a lack of trusted adults to provide emotional support; it increasingly places children away from their home, and it creates instability through multiple changes in care placements.[6] [7] [8] These and other failings can be reduced with the right solutions in the right places, in order to provide the care that children need.

Local authorities bear the responsibility for protecting and promoting children’s welfare and wellbeing. Yet while need continues to skyrocket, the funding available for local authorities to achieve this has been severely constrained. For example, National World estimate that a children’s services budget deficit worth as much as £4 billion opened up between 2014-15 and 2019-20.[1] As local authorities firefight to provide statutory crisis interventions, attempts to balance the books have led to cutbacks in the very areas of care that help to prevent crises arising in the first place. If current trends continue, 100,000 children could be in care by 2032, with costs to long-overstretched councils rising to £15bn – up almost 50% on where they are now.[2]

The long-awaited review of children’s social care, chaired by Josh MacAlister, has called for a “radical reset” of the system, aimed at shifting provision away from crisis management and towards early intervention that begins in the community.[3] The review suggests that achieving this will require £2.6bn of investment over four years, and a strong focus on intensive services to support families in crisis, aimed at providing support to at-risk children as early as possible.

While some commentators have raised concerns with elements of the review’s recommendations, consensus from leading children’s charities and other sector experts has formed around the urgency to do more to lessen our unsustainable reliance on crisis intervention and instead support measures offering help early, before situations spiral.[4]

This report aims to contribute to that effort. Tracing shifts in early and late intervention spending over the last decade, it digs into the underlying data behind those trends to explore what’s gone wrong and where help may be best targeted. In the process, it shows that cuts to early intervention services – and family support in particular – have disproportionately impacted children in the most deprived parts of the country.[5] Only through targeted investment in early intervention in those places can we begin to reverse the crisis in children’s services and create a more caring system for children and young people.

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[1] Clugston H (2021): Children’s social services face £4bn budget blackhole since 2014 - as social workers call for more cash to protect kids, National World

[2] The independent review of children’s social care (2022)

[3] The independent review of children’s social care (2022)

[4] Pierre R (2022): England’s care system is failing children. This new overhaul is based on a middle-class fantasy, The Guardian

[5] Family support services include: home care to help carers look after a child at home, intensive family support lead by the Troubled Families Unit, family contact supervision, community support such as home-school liaison services, or respite care for disabled children.

[1] Murray E, Lacey R, Maughan B, Sacker A (2020): Association of childhood out-of-home care status with all-cause mortality up to 42-years later: Office of National Statistics Longitudinal Study, BMC Public Health 20, 735

[2] The independent review of children’s social care (2022): The case for change

[3] Department for Education (2021): Children looked after in England including adoptions  

[4] Department for Education (2019): Help, protection, education: concluding the Children in Need review

[5] The Association of Directors of Children’s Services Ltd (2021): Safeguarding pressures phase 7

[6] The independent review of children’s social care (2022)

[7] NSPCC (2022): Looked after children

[8] Rahilly T, Hendry E (2014): Promoting the wellbeing of children in care; messages from research, NSPCC