Spending on children’s social care in England has increased since 2009/10, but so has demand. Service quality, at least in child protection, has declined but only slightly. This suggests that children’s social care has become more efficient. Local authorities appear to have achieved that mainly by increasing productivity – asking social workers to do more.
However, the increasing number of vacancies for social workers and high turnover rates indicate that further increasing social workers workload, without changing the way they work, risks damaging the quality of care.
For full citations and further details see the children’s social care chapter from Performance Tracker 2018. This analysis is drawn from Performance Tracker, produced by the Institute for Government in partnership with CIPFA.
1. Since 2009/10, day-to-day spending on children's social care has increased by almost 16% in real terms.
- Day-to-day spending on children’s social care has risen. In 2016/17, local authorities spent £7.6bn on children’s social care – around 13% of their locally controlled budgets.
2. But spending on other 'children's services' has fallen by 56%.
- As well as acute ‘social care’ services, councils also provide wider services for children, like youth centres. These are often ‘discretionary’ services (councils are not bound by law to provide them), and may prevent more serious problems for emerging.
- Some of these services have seen big spending cuts. Spending on ‘services for young people’ and Sure Start children’s centres fell by 53% and 35% respectively between 2011/12 and 2016/17.
- This is atypical by recent standards. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that, between 2000/01 and 2009/10, real-terms spending on children’s services (including social care and these wider services) more than doubled. Since 2009/10, it has fallen by 7%.
3. The number of children receiving social care is rising.
- The biggest rise is in the number of ‘section 47’ enquiries, where a team of social workers, teachers and police officers assess whether a child requires child protection. This has more than doubled since 2009/10.
- The number of children on a ‘child protection plan’ – a detailed plan drawn up by a social worker to explain how a council will keep a child safe – has risen by almost 40% over the same period.
- The number of ‘looked-after’ children, who require the most intensive (and therefore expensive) support has risen 17%.
4. The number of staff working in children's social care rose by 24% between 2013/14 and 2017/18.
- The number of children’s social workers has risen, but the workforce is less experienced. Between 2015/16 and 2017/18, there was a 30% increase in the number of staff with less than five years’ local authority experience. The number of staff with more than five years’ experience dropped by 11% in the same period.
- This does not include people who provide social care, but are not directly employed by the local authority. For example, we do not know what has happened to the number of staff working in children’s homes.
5. There has been a 61% increase in social worker vacancies since 2013/14.
- The number of vacancies for children’s social workers has increased. Full-time equivalent vacancies have increased by 61% between September 2013/14 and 2017/18, from 3,610 to 5,820. The rate plateaued after 2015/16.
6. The average social work career lasts less than eight years, compared with 16 for nurses and 25 for doctors.
- Turnover is high. The turnover rate of children’s social workers peaked at 17% in 2014/15, although it improved to 14% in 2017/18.
7. The number of agency children's social care workers increased 64% between 2013/14 and 2017/18.
- There are more agency workers. The agency staff rate (FTE) was 16% in 2017/18; almost 75% of those were covering vacancies, compared with 79% in 2015/16.
- But agency staff have not been able to plug the gaps. Excluding positions covered by agency social workers, full-time equivalent vacancies still increased by 12% between 2015/16 and 2017/18, from 1,620 to 1,820.
8. The average children's social worker is dealing with 18 cases at a time.
- A survey from the Department for Education in September 2018 found that the average caseload on the sample day was 17.8.
- But this might not be sustainable. The average social worker’s caseload in local authorities judged ‘good’ by Ofsted is lower – typically between 10 and 14 cases.
9. The number of children going back onto a child protection plan (after their problems had been considered resolved) increased from 6,000 to 14,000 between 2009/10 and 2017/18.
- 19% of children starting child protection plans in 2017/18 were on them for the second or subsequent time, compared to 13% in 2009/10.
- But according to Ofsted, the quality of children’s services has been maintained. The share of ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ judgements increased slightly between 2014/15 and 2017/18; the share or ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ judgements decreased slightly.
- However, no local authority has been inspected more than once since the introduction of the Single Inspection Framework in 2013. Changes between years may reflect a change in the number of councils inspected, rather than a change in quality.
10. The percentage of children on child protection plans who had their plans reviewed within target timescales decreased from 97% in 2009/10 to 91% in 2017/18.
- The timeliness of reviews for children on child protection plans has declined. 91% of children on child protection plans had their reviews carried out within the required timescales in 2017/18, compared to 97% in 2009/10
- Social workers prioritising their work to get at-risk children into the child protection system, rather than checking on children already in it. Initial child protection conferences – the stage immediately before a child protection plan – are happening faster. In 2017/18, 77% of initial child protection conferences were held within 15 working days of starting a Section 47 assessment, up from 66.2% in 2009/10.