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Performance Tracker 2022/23: Spring update - Children's social care

Referrals have returned to pre-pandemic levels while the the number of children remaining in care has increased pressure on the system.

A small girl reaching into a box with games. In front of her is a board with artwork on.

The pandemic made it more difficult for local authorities to ensure children’s safety, exacerbating existing long-term problems facing the sector. During the height of the crisis, limited spare capacity in the residential sector fed into higher costs as authorities sought out accommodation. The number of children in care remained at an all-time high as fewer children could be safely discharged – this is despite referrals to social services falling dramatically, principally during lockdowns.

Since the reopening of schools, referrals have returned to pre-pandemic levels. Yet it is still too early to know whether ‘missing’ lockdown cases will show up or the extent of additional harm suffered by children during this time, though there have been some notably tragic cases. Following several highly critical reviews calling for radical overhauls of the children’s social care system, the government launched a long-term plan for the sector, which has been criticised for the scale and speed of response. The children’s social care workforce will be critical to the delivery of any reforms but the sector is struggling with chronic shortfalls  leading to a reliance on costly agency staff.

This chapter examines children’s social care in England. These services are provided by upper tier local authorities, which are legally obliged to provide support for disabled children, to protect children from harm, and to take responsibility for ‘looked-after children’, including through foster and residential care placements.

Spending on children’s social care is increasing pressure on local authority budgets 

Local authorities spent £11.1 billion on children’s social care in 2021/22, a 41% rise in real terms compared to 2009/10. 135 Department for Education, ‘Local authority and school expenditure: 2021 to 2022’, 8 December 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/la-and-school-expenditure-2021-to-2022-financial-year By comparison, the children’s population grew by less than 10% over the same period. The sustained increase in children’s social care spending continues to squeeze other areas of local government spending. 136 Atkins G and Hoddinott S, Neighbourhood Services Under Strain: How a decade of cuts and rising demand for social care affected local services, Institute for Government, April 2022, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publication/neighbourhood-services-under-strain

Spending has also prioritised children’s social care at the expense of other services for children. Spending on safeguarding children and young people’s services increased by 27%, and on looked-after children* by 49%, between 2009/10 and 2021/22. 147 Department for Education, ‘Local authority and school expenditure 2021 to 2022’, 8 December 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/la-and-school-expenditure-2021-to-2022-financial-year Over the same period spending on services for young people was cut by 61% – Sure Start children’s centres and other spend on children under five fell by 74%. 148 Department for Education, ‘Local authority and school expenditure 2021 to 2022’, 8 December 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/la-and-school-expenditure-2021-to-2022-financial-year

The government-commissioned independent review of children’s social care has called for a roughly £2bn (20% in cash terms) uplift to children’s social care spending over the next five years. 149 MacAlister J, The independent review of children’s social care, Final report, May 2022, p. 8, https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk It also called for a rebalancing of priorities away from crisis interventions towards earlier stage interventions with an annual amount of £1bn ringfenced for family help. 150 MacAlister J, The independent review of children’s social care, Final report, May 2022, p. 9, https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk

*A child who has been in the care of their local authority for more than 24 hours is known as a looked-after child. Looked-after children are also often referred to as children in care.

Local authorities faced additional pandemic-related children’s social care spend, particularly on residential care

During the 2020/21 and 2021/22 financial years, local authorities spent £820.6 million on pandemic-related social care costs. 151 Institute for Government analysis of DLUHC, ‘Local authority COVID-19 financial impact monitoring information round 20’, 12 August 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/local-authority-covid-19-financial-impact-monitoring-information Almost half (48%) of these extra costs in 2021/22 were accounted for by the higher cost of residential care placements for children. 152 Institute for Government analysis of DLUHC, ‘Local authority COVID-19 financial impact monitoring information round 20’, 12 August 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/local-authority-covid-19-financial-impact-monitoring-information The cost of these placements rose sharply during the pandemic due to infection control measures and higher residential staffing costs. 153 Institute for Government interview. , 154 The Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Safeguarding pressures phase 7, February 2021, https://adcs.org.uk/assets/documentation/ADCS_Safeguarding_Pressures_Phase7_FINAL.pdf pages 52-53 Almost a fifth (19%) of the additional pandemic-related costs – totalling £159.5m during 2020/21 and 2021/22 – came from workforce pressures as local authorities and providers faced higher unit costs from agency staff. 155 Institute for Government analysis of DLUHC, ‘Local authority COVID-19 financial impact monitoring information round 20’, 12 August 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/local-authority-covid-19-financial-impact-monitoring-information Local authorities were given support to meet these and other costs through non-ringfenced grants from central government, though the degree to which Covid-specific funding helped to offset regular children’s social care costs is difficult to assess. 156 Institute for Government interview.

Additionally, the demand for children’s residential places has increased following the 2021 ban on the use of unregulated accommodation, 167 Department for Education, ‘Unregulated accommodation banned for vulnerable children under 16’, press release, 19 February 2021, retrieved 18 August 2022, www.gov.uk/government/news/unregulatedaccommodation-banned-for-vulnerable-children-under-16 though the practice still continues in some cases. 168 Titheradge N, ‘Children in care are being illegally placed in caravans and boats’, BBC News, 20 July 2022, retrieved 18 August 2022, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-62127523 Overall, despite the number of children’s homes increasing by 378 to 2,970 between August 2020 and 2022, 169 Ofsted, ‘Main findings: local authority and children’s homes in England inspections and outcomes – autumn 2021’, 24 November 2021, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/local-authority-and-childrens-homes-inengland-inspections-and-outcomes-autumn-2021/main-findings-local-authority-and… – all children’s homes; Ofsted, ‘Main findings: local authority and children’s homes in England inspections and outcomes – autumn 2020’, 20 January 2021, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/local-authority-and-childrens-homes-in-england-inspections-and-outcomes-
autumn-2020/main-findings-local-authority-and-childrens-homes-in-england-inspections-andoutcomes-autumn-2020 – registration activity since April 2020.
this was likely to have been outstripped by demand. 170 Institute for Government interview. Furthermore, national increases can mask local shortfalls, including in the quantity and quality of secure homes, and, in placements for children with complex or challenging needs. 171 Institute for Government interview. , 172 MacAlister J, The independent review of children’s social care, Final report, May 2022, p. 122, https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk These problems predate the pandemic. For example, in 2022 Ofsted analysis showed that as of March 2020 only 5% of homes stated that they could accommodate complex health needs. 173 Ofsted, What type of needs do children’s care homes offer care for?, 8 July 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/what-types-of-needs-do-childrens-homes-offer-care-for/what-types-of-needs-do-childrenshomes-offer-care-for#needs-o…

Higher profits by private residential providers have added to costs facing local authorities, with 83% of all provision in the independent sector. 174 MacAlister J, The independent review of children’s social care, Final report, May 2022, p. 121, https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk This trend was also identified in a recent report by the Competition and Markets Authority, which found private providers were making higher profits through higher prices and provision which did not always meet the needs of children. 175 Competition and Markets Authority, Children’s social care market study final report, 22 March 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/childrens-social-care-market-study-final-report/final-report

The number of children being referred to children’s services has returned to pre-pandemic levels

Referrals to children’s social care have returned to pre-pandemic levels, rising by approximately 52,500 in 2021/22 (8.8%) compared to 2020/21. 176 Department for Education, ‘Characteristics of children in need’, 27 October 2022, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/characteristics-of-children-in-need/2022

Part of the reason for the increase in referral numbers is that as lockdown restrictions were reduced, potentially vulnerable children had greater contact with public services. Schools are the second highest source of referrals to social care and between 2020/21 and 2021/22 schools referred 59% more cases – reversing the large 30.6% fall in referrals seen between 2019/20 and 2020/21. 187 Department for Education, ‘Characteristics of children in need’, 27 October 2022, https://explore-educationstatistics-service.gov.uk/find-statistics/characteristics-of-children-in-need/2022 , 188 Institute for Government analysis of referral by type data in Department for Education, ‘Characteristics of children in need’, 28 October 2021, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/characteristics-of-children-in-need/2021

While referrals are now 1.1% higher than 2019/20 levels, it is unclear whether missing referrals during the pandemic will lead to higher referrals at a later date. 189 Atkins G, Pope T, Shepheard M, Tetlow G and Kavanagh A, Performance Tracker 2021, Institute for Government, 19 October 2021, p. 68, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/performance-tracker-2021 Some local authorities responding to a survey by the Department for Education (DfE) reported that, continuing the pre-pandemic trend, the nature of cases coming forward appears to be more complex, which may add pressures to the system. 190 Department for Education, Vulnerable Children and Young People Survey, waves 27–31, January 2022, p. 14, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1049510/Vulnerable_Children_and_Young_People_Survey_w… A 2022 British Association of Social Workers survey of members also raised concerns that cost of living pressure could lead to unmanageable caseloads. 191 Simpson F, ‘Children’s social work caseloads predicted to soar as living costs rise’, Children and Young People Now, 7 September 2022, retrieved 13 September 2022, www.cypnow.co.uk/news/article/children-s-socialwork-caseloads-predicted-to-soar-as-living-costs-rise

The number of children on child protection plans remains high despite falling slightly during the pandemic

The number of child protection plans (CPPs)* rose in 2021/22 for the first time in four years and now stands at around 51,000. 192 Department for Education, ‘Characteristics of children in need’, 27 October 2022, https://explore-educationstatistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/characteristics-of-children-in-need/2022 While this is up 1.8% against 2020/21, figures remain low and are down 1.1% from 020 and at their second lowest level since 2015. 193 Department for Education, ‘Characteristics of children in need’, 27 October 2022, https://explore-educationstatistics-service.gov.uk/find-statistics/characteristics-of-children-in-need/2022 , 194 Department for Education, Drivers of activity in children’s social care, research report, May 2022, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1080111/Drivers_of_Activity_in_Children_s_Social_Care… The number, however, remains significantly higher than the approximately 39,000 plans in place in 2009/10. 195 Department for Education, Statistical Release, OSR 18/2011, Referrals, assessments and children who were the subject of a child protection plan (Children in need census – provisional) year ending 31 March 2021, 28 September 2011, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/219455/osr18-2011.pdf

It is too early to say whether this increase is part of a broader trend. Ofsted analysis suggests that the increase may be partially linked to continued social worker hesitancy to reduce the level of support to children in the context of a new post-lockdown environment. 196 Department for Education, Children’s social care 2022: recovering from the pandemic, 27 July 2022, retrieved 23 January 2023, www.gov.uk/government/publications/childrens-social-care-2022-recovering-from-the-covid-19-pandemic/childrens-social-care-2022-recovering-from-the-co…

* After a referral, a child may be assessed under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 to be judged at a reasonable risk of harm. If that happens, a child protection plan is agreed, which commits a local authority to support the child; this plan may cover their care while the child lives with their family or, for example, while they are in residential care.

There has been a small increase in the number of children cared for by local authorities

Social workers now support a slightly higher number of looked-after-children.* As of March 2022, there were approximately 82,000 looked-after children, which was up 1.5% on the previous year and an increase of 2.7% compared to March 2020. 202 Department for Education, ‘Children looked after in England including adoptions 2022’, 12 November 2022, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/children-looked-after-in-englandincluding-adoptions/2022 This continues a longer-term rise seen over the past decade. 203 Department for Education, ‘Children looked after in England including adoptions 2022’, 12 November 2022, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/children-looked-after-in-englandincluding-adoptions/2022 This is largely due to fewer children leaving care before the age of 18.**, 204 Department for Education, Drivers of activity in children’s social care, research report, May 2022, p. 7, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1080111/Drivers_of_Activity_in_Children_s_Social_Care…

* A child who has been in the care of a local authority for more than 24 hours. Generally these children are accommodated in children’s homes, residential settings like secure units, or with foster parents.

**It remains unclear what is the key driver of this trend. Multiple explanations have been outlined in DFE, ‘Drivers of activity in children’s social care’ research report, May 2022, accessed September 2022, pp. 7–8, 18–24, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1080111/Drivers_of_Activity_in_Children_s_Social_Care…;

Social worker staffing levels continue to rise alongside sustained levels of vacancies

The number of children’s and family social workers continued to grow with a 2% increase in 2021/22 but the proportion of vacancies remained steady. 205 Department for Education, ‘Children’s social work workforce 2021’, 24 February 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/childrens-social-work-workforce-2021 Despite this, a considerable majority of local authorities (83%) when surveyed said that they are struggling to recruit children’s social care staff. 206 Local Government Association, Local Government Workforce Survey 2022, research report, May 2022, 19 January 2023, retrieved 24 January 2023, www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/LG%20Workforce%20Survey%202022%20-%20Final%20for%20Publication%20-%20Tables%20Hard%20Coded.pdf

As of 2021/22, staff with less than five years’ experience make up 60% of the labour force. 212 Department for Education, ‘Children’s social work workforce characteristics’, 24 February 2022, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/children-s-social-work-workforce While there has been some improvement in the proportion of staff with two to five years’ experience, rising from 27% in 2020/21 to 29% in 2021/22, a relatively high proportion of staff (31%) have under two. This could affect the quality of children’s social care services. As the independent review of children’s social care highlighted in May 2022, social work requires experienced, knowledgeable and skilled workers to make difficult and sensitive decisions. 213 MacAlister J, The independent review of children’s social care, Final report, May 2022, pp. 69–70, https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk Yet the review noted that social work is often carried out by relatively inexperienced and early career staff who lack the supervision and support to develop skills. 214 MacAlister J, The independent review of children’s social care, Final report, May 2022, pp. 69–70, https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk

Staff undertook similar volumes of work in 2021 to 2020. However, the average caseload of each social worker remained higher than in 2015, with 16.3 cases per social worker in 2021 compared to 15 in 2015. 215 Department for Education, ‘Children’s social work workforce 2021’, 24 February 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/childrens-social-work-workforce-2021 The 2021 British Association of Social Workers annual survey found increasing workloads were affecting staff wellbeing. 216 The British Association of Social Workers, The BASW Annual Survey of Social Workers and Social Work: 2021, 9 March 2022, p. 3, www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/basw_annual_survey_summary_report_2021.pdf

Increasing workload pressures linked to Covid may have contributed to the increase in turnover rate seen in 2021/22, when almost 5,000 (FTE) social work staff left their job, equating to 15.4% of the total workforce. 241 Department for Education, ‘Children’s social work workforce 2021’, 24 February 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/childrens-social-work-workforce-2021 Now, 72% of local authorities report difficulties retaining social workers. 242 Local Government Association, Local Government Workforce Survey 2022, research report, May 2022, retrieved 24 January 2023, www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/LG%20Workforce%20Survey%202022%20-%20Final%20for%20Publication%20-%20Tables%20Hard%20Coded.pdf Responses to a DfE survey of social workers show high caseloads are an important reason for workers wanting to leave the profession alongside complaints about the culture of local authority social work. 243 Department for Education, Longitudinal study of local authority child and family social workers (Wave 4), December 2022, retrieved 23 January 2023, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1121609/Long_CAFSW_Wave_4_Report.pdf

A sustained turnover rate greater than 15% of the workforce since 2013/14 ultimately costs more for local authorities either directly through recruitment costs and higher wages to attract staff or indirectly through higher costs from private providers to fill staffing gaps. 244 Department for Education, ‘Children’s social work workforce 2021’, 24 February 2022, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/childrens-social-work-workforce-2021 Analysis from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) shows the percentage of agency workers employed in the workforce increased from 15.6% in June 2021 to 16.7% in June 2022 nationally, but with some local authorities highly dependent on agency workers. 245 The Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Safeguarding pressures phase 8, December 2022, retrieved 24 January 2023, p. 103, https://adcs.org.uk/assets/documentation/ADCS_Safeguarding_Pressures_Phase_8_Full_Report_FINAL.pdf ADCS analysis also shows a marked increase in the hiring of agency staff on a team rather than individual basis, which gives local authorities less flexibility and further raises costs. 246 The Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Safeguarding pressures phase 8, December 2022, retrieved 24 January 2023, p. 103, https://adcs.org.uk/assets/documentation/ADCS_Safeguarding_Pressures_Phase_8_Full_Report_FINAL.pdf Combined, these factors have led to council spending on agency workers increasing by 38% over five years. 247 BBC News, ‘Children’s social work agency spending soars research suggests’, 28 December 2022, retrieved 24 January 2023, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-64054446 The impact of problems recruiting and retaining care staff and foster carers was also cited as a problem for social care quality in the recent Competition and Markets Authority investigation. 248 Competition and Markets Authority, Children’s social care market study final report, 22 March 2022, www.gov.uk/cma-cases/childrens-social-care-study

Social work practices changed during the height of the pandemic but have largely returned to normal

In autumn 2021, we reported that the pandemic had led to increased use of remote working tools while face-to-face contact was restricted. In general, regular face-to-face services resumed as restrictions were lifted, though some local authorities continued to use new technologies like WhatsApp to stay in contact with children. 249 Institute for Government interview. Some councils also prepared contingency plans for how to best prioritise work in response to the Omicron wave in December 2021. 250 Department for Education, Vulnerable children and young people survey, waves 27-31, January 2022, p. 6, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1049510/Vulnerable_Children_and_Young_People_Survey_w…; Institute for Government interview.

Many local authorities need to improve the quality of children’s social care

The lifting of Covid protection measures saw the return to regular Ofsted inspections from 12 April 2021 (for part of the year), which meant a snapshot of service performance can be provided for some local authorities as they exited the pandemic. Of the 23 inspection reports published for 2021/22 over half were judged as outstanding or good (57%). Ten of the authorities improved their judgment, while four declined and seven stayed at the same grade.*, 251 Ofsted, ‘Main findings: children’s social care in England 2022’, 7 July 2022, retrieved 24 January 2023, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/childrens-social-care-data-in-england-2022/main-findings-childrenssocial-care-in-england-2022#inspections-of-la-chil… As of December 2022, 84 authorities are rated good or outstanding (55%), 49 are rated as requiring improvement (32%) and 17 rated as inadequate (11%) – though many of these ratings are based on assessments that predate the pandemic.**, 252 Ofsted, ‘Main findings: children’s social care data for the Ofsted Annual Report 2021/22’, 13 December 2022, retrieved 24 January 2023, www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/childrens-social-care-data-for-theofsted-annual-report-202122

The independent review of children’s social care has called for a radical change in services to make them more responsive, respectful and effective. 253 MacAlister J, The independent review of children’s social care, Final report, May 2022, p. 10, https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk This includes changes to working practices and processes, as well as reform of the children’s social care market. 254 MacAlister J, The independent review of children’s social care, Final report, May 2022, p. 12, https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk
 
Echoing similar calls from the children’s commissioner, 255 Children’s Commissioner, Children’s Social Care – putting children’s voices at the heat of reform, January 2022, www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/cco_childrens_social_care_putting_childrens_voices_at_the_heart_of_reform.pdf it also called for children’s voices to be better heard when decisions are made on their care packages. 256 MacAlister J, The independent review of children’s social care, Final report, May 2022, p. 12, https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk Local authorities would need more funding to enact all these recommendations. The government launched its response in February 2023, outlining ambitions for change in the sector and opening several consultations. 257 Department for Education, ‘Children’s social care: Stable Homes, Built on Love’, open consultation, 2 February 2023, www.gov.uk/government/consultations/childrens-social-care-stable-homes-built-on-love While broadly welcomed by the sector, 258 Local Government Association, ‘Children’s social care implementation strategy: LGA response’, 2 February 2023, www.local.gov.uk/about/news/childrens-social-care-implementation-strategy-lga-response it has been criticised for the scale and pace of change, 259 Samuel M, ‘Care review lead: government must go further and faster in response’, Community Care, 2 February 2023, www.communitycare.co.uk/2023/02/02/care-review-lead-government-must-go-further-and-faster-inresponse and for providing only 20% of the funding called for by the independent review. 260 Samuel M, ‘DfE provides 20% of funding urged by care review in response’, Community Care, 2 February 2023, www.communitycare.co.uk/2023/02/02/dfe-provides-20-of-funding-urged-by-care-review-in-response

* A further two authorities were assessed for the first time.

** A further two authorities have yet to be assessed.

The number of registered serious incidents has reversed from its mid-pandemic high

Local authorities monitor and notify Ofsted when a child who was known to be at risk has later died or come to harm using serious incident notifications. In 2021/22 there were fewer than 450 of these, compared to more than 500 in 2020/21. 261 Department for Education, ‘Serious incident notifications’, 26 May 2022, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/serious-incident-notifications However, it is too early to judge whether the decline in 2021/22 reflects a permanent reduction in comparison to the first year of the pandemic or whether the number will rise again in future years. 262 Department for Education, ‘Serious incident notifications’, 26 May 2022, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/serious-incident-notifications ; Atkins G, Kavanagh A, Shepheard M, Pope T and Tetlow G, Performance Tracker 2021, Institute for Government, 19 October 2021, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/performance-tracker-2021

Following the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson a national inquiry recommended the need for dedicated multi-agency teams for every local area. 263 Letter from Annie Hudson, chair of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, to the secretary of state for education, 13 December 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/child-safeguarding-practice-reviewpanel-national-review-following-the-murder-of-arthur-labinjo-hughes , 264 Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, ‘New expert child protection units across the country’, press release, 26 May 2022, www.gov.uk/government/news/new-expert-child-protection-units-across-the-country If implemented, this might help to reduce the number of these incidents.

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