Children's social care

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 attempting to find greater efficiencies through making staff do more risks damaging quality.

In England, children’s social care – supporting children in need and safeguarding children at risk of harm[1] – is funded and delivered by local authorities.[2] In 2016/17 local authorities spent £7.6 billion (bn) on children’s social care* – around 13% of their locally controlled budgets.**

Children’s social care is part of a wider group of ‘children’s services’ which also include universal and targeted early help, such as children’s centres.*** These other services are largely discretionary, meaning that unlike social care, local authorities either do not have to provide them, or have less-defined legal obligations[3] to do so.

This chapter focuses on children’s social care, which consists of services for the children most at risk of harm, from finding residential places for vulnerable children to creating child protection plans for at-risk children. These services are typically legal obligations – local authorities must provide them – and last resorts – they are used when earlier interventions have not prevented children from being at risk.

We refer to changes in other children’s services, such as children’s centres, where they provide the context for changes in children’s social care. Many of these other children’s services, while not legal obligations, are designed to stop problems from building up that might later cause children to need social care.[4]

*    By which we mean services for looked-after children, safeguarding and family support services. We used these three spending categories as a proxy for children’s social care, as they exclude most spending on non-social care children’s services. The categories are consistent between 2012/13 and 2016/17. For the three years before 2012/13, we adjusted the categories used at that time to replicate the three categories as closely as possible. Our full methodology is available on request. The differences after 2011/12 are explained in: Department for Education, Expenditure by Local Authorities and Schools on Education, Children’s and Young People’s Services 2012–13, Department for Education, 2013, p. 7.

**    We measured locally controlled budgets as total local authority revenue spending, excluding (1) spending on education, the police and fire and rescue services, which councils do not control, and (2) local authorities without social care responsibilities.

***    Children’s services consist of three tiers: universal, targeted and specialist. The higher the tier, the more targeted and specialist the service. See Social Care Institute for Excellence, ‘The wider network: the “four-tier model” of services’, Social Care Institute for Excellence, no date, retrieved 14 September 2018,


Spending on children’s social care has increased 14% since 2009/10

Figure 2.1 Change in spending on children’s social care in England (real terms), since 2009/10

Day-to-day spending on children’s social care has increased by almost 14% in real terms since 2009/10. In addition to this local authority spending, the Department for Education committed £200 million (m) to a Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme[5] to test new ways of supporting vulnerable children between 2014/15 and 2020/21,[6] with the aim of developing and sharing evidence on how to get the best outcomes for them.

However, real-terms spending on children’s services overall fell 7% between 2009/10 and 2016/17, due to cuts to spending on other – generally discretionary – children’s services. Spending on ‘services for young people’* and Sure Start children’s centres fell by 53% and 35% in real terms respectively between 2011/12 and 2016/17. This overall fall in spending is atypical by recent standards. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that, between 2000/01 and 2009/10, real-terms spending on children’s services more than doubled.[7]

Spending cuts in children’s services may prove to be a false economy. Some councils have reported that investment in preventative children’s services reduces,[8] and has reduced,[9] demand for social care. This is typically measured as a reduction in the number of ‘children in need’ – children unlikely to have a reasonable standard of health or development without local authority services[10] – or the number of ‘looked- after children’ – children provided with accommodation for more than 24 hours, subject to local authority supervision, or subject to a placement order for adoption.[11]

Some projects evaluated in the first wave of the Innovation Programme were reported to reduce children’s need for social care.** But the overall quantitative evidence on the effectiveness of preventative services is mixed,[12] so we cannot be certain of their effects on demand for children’s social care.

*    Services for young people include counselling and youth work.

**    Of the 23 projects that tried to reduce the number of looked-after children, 14 reported generally positive findings; of the 16 projects that tried to reduce the number of children in need, eight reported generally positive findings. See Sebba J, Luke N, McNeish D and Rees A, Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme: Final evaluation report, Department for Education, 2017, p. 24.


Demand: the number of children in England has grown 5% since 2009/10

Figure 2.2 Change in the child population in England, as of 30 June, since 2009/10

We cannot observe demand for children’s social care directly,* but more children are likely to mean greater demand, assuming that the average need of each child does not fall. The number of children in England has grown 5% since 2009/10.

The real increase in demand since 2009/10 is likely to have been more than 5%, however. Between 2009/10 and 2015/16, the number of ‘initial contacts’ that children’s social care departments received per 10,000 children increased by 19% (an initial contact being any contact that they receive requesting advice or information about a child or a service for a child).[13]

The number of referrals they recorded per 10,000 children increased by 2% between 2009/10 and 2016/17. Whether this is because the number of children in need of social care is genuinely increasing, or local authorities and the public have become more risk averse, demand for local authority services has increased.

Although there is consensus that demand is increasing, there is little agreement on why. The National Audit Office (and research commissioned by the Department for Education[14]) suggests that the increase in demand could be because of better identification of problems such as child sexual exploitation,[15] or national scandals raising awareness and leading to greater risk aversion among the public, family courts and social workers.[16] The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) argues that a reduction in early intervention services has led to greater demand for acute social care.[17]

 There is significant academic evidence of a correlation between poverty and child abuse and neglect,[18] suggesting that, all other things being equal, the rise in the number of children living in relative poverty after housing costs in England since 2010[19] may have increased demand. Medical advances mean that more children with severe health conditions and disabilities are living longer,** many of whom are likely to require high levels of social care. Finally, new laws may have increased demand on local authorities by tightening eligibility for other services and shifting knock-on costs onto local authorities.[20] Some councils have reported that extending upfront charges for non-urgent NHS treatment, introduced in 2017,[21] meant that they ended up covering the cost of NHS health care under their safeguarding duties.[22] As most of these potential causes occurred concurrently, it is hard to identify the main driver.

This matters. Without a clear understanding of what is driving demand, the Government will not be able to make appropriate spending allocations, or design policies to reduce demand.

*    The number of children that local authorities help should be a measure of demand but isn’t because it may miss some cases of ‘unmet need’. It relies on local authorities identifying all cases of need, and it ignores some evidence of increasing thresholds to access children’s social care services. According to two CommunityCare surveys in 2015, 71% of social workers thought that the threshold for child protection had increased in the previous year, and 43% of social workers felt ‘pressured’ to reclassify borderline cases as (lower-intervention) children-in-need cases, rather than (higher-intervention) child protection cases. See Stevenson L, ‘Are child protection thresholds too high?’, CommunityCare, 10 September 2015, retrieved 14 September 2018,; Stevenson L, ‘Social workers “pressured” to downgrade child protection cases as referrals surge’, CommunityCare, 2 September 2015, retrieved 14 September 2018,

**    The number of school pupils in England with a Statement or Education, Health and Care Plan increased 13% between January 2010 and January 2018, indicating that children with severe health conditions and disabilities are living longer – or there is better recognition of special educational needs and disabilities. See Department for Education, ‘Special educational needs in England’, National Statistics, no date, retrieved 14 September 2018,


Input: the number of local authority children’s social workers increased by 24% between 2013/14 and 2017/18

Figure 2.3 Number of local authority children’s social workers as of 30 September, since 2011/12

In 2016/17, 34% of children’s social care spending went on employing local authority social workers – the staff who assess, provide support and arrange care for children. Between 2014/15 and 2016/17 spending on these social workers rose by 7% in real terms, while staff numbers rose by 13%.*

Overall workforce experience declined over the past two years, which is likely to be the consequence of recruiting more people. Between September 2015/16 and 2017/18 there was a 30% increase in the number of staff with less than five years’ local authority experience, and a 11% decrease in staff with more than five years’ experience.[23]

*    We can only observe change in spending from 2014/15 because data from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for before 2014/15 does not distinguish between children’s services employees and children’s social care employees.


Input: social worker vacancies have steadily increased since 2013/14

Figure 2.4 Number of children’s social worker vacancies as of 30 September, since 2011/12

Children’s social care faces recruitment pressures, which it has not been able to meet with agency staff. The number of full-time equivalent vacancies increased by 61% between September 2013/14 and 2017/18, from 3,610 to 5,820, although the rate of increase plateaued after 2015/16. Not all vacancies were unstaffed, as some were covered by agency workers. But even excluding positions covered by agency social workers, full-time equivalent vacancies still increased by 12% between September 2015/16 and 2017/18, from 1,620 to 1,820.

Retaining existing staff is also a challenge. The turnover rate – the annual number of children’s social workers who leave as a percentage of the total number of children’s social workers – has been consistently high, reaching 17% in 2014/15, although this has since improved slightly, and declined to 14% in 2017/18.

Agency social workers have been deployed in increasing numbers, largely in response to these recruitment and retention issues. The number of full-time equivalent agency children’s social workers increased 64% between 2013/14 and 2017/18, while a BBC Freedom of Information request survey found that local authority spending on agency children’s and adult social workers – the best estimate we have for spending on agency children’s social workers – almost doubled from £180m to £356m between 2012/13 and 2016/17.[24] As a percentage of children’s social workers, agency staff increased from 12% to 16% between 2013/14 and 2015/16, remaining around 16% in the following two years.

There is limited data on other resources – besides staff – that children’s social care spending goes on. The next two largest areas of spending are fostering services and residential care placements, which together constituted 37% of children’s social care spending in 2016/17. But there is no national data on whether residential home staff, residential home running costs and looked-after children education teams[25] – educational advisers who support looked-after children in schools – are increasing or decreasing.

This is probably because most residential care is delivered by private providers[26] and around a third of fostering services are delivered by voluntary or private providers.[27] If we had data on staff and running costs in fostering and residential care, we would be able to assess economies – whether local authorities are buying these resources for less – and productivity – whether staff in these services are doing more for less.

Output: local authorities are assessing more cases and protecting and caring for more children than they were in 2009/10

The work carried out by children’s social care departments – managing referrals, checking in on children in child protection cases, and arranging care for the children that councils are responsible for – has risen substantially since 2009/10. The sharpest increase has been in ‘Section 47 enquiries’, where a team of social workers, teachers and police officers assess whether a child is at risk of significant harm following concerns that they may be. More resource-intensive work – helping children on a child protection plan and looked-after children – has also increased significantly.

Figure 2.5 Changes in the number of child protection enquiries, children subject to a child protection plan and looked-after children, since 2009/10

Section 47 enquiries more than doubled between 2009/10 and 2016/17, from 89,000 to 185,000. If an enquiry decides that a child is at risk, the child may be put on a child protection plan whereby a social worker sets out the plan[28] to keep them safe and then regularly visits them to check on progress.[29] The number of children on a child protection plan increased by 31% between 2009/10 and 2016/17, from 39,000 to 51,000.

Local authorities are also looking after more children. Local authorities look after a child if social workers think that they are at risk of significant harm, and they have the parent’s or child’s consent to look after them, or are successful in applying to look after them through the courts. Local authority court applications to take children into care per 10,000 children rose by 53% between 2009/10 and 2017/18.[30] And the total number of children that local authorities are looking after increased by 13%, from 64,000 to 73,000, between 2009/10 and 2016/17.

These three metrics do not represent all activity in children’s social care – they exclude independent fosters’ and residential providers’ work – but they illustrate that the amount of work that children’s social care services have to do is going up. Meanwhile, Ofsted inspections of local authority children’s services departments, typically used as the main indicator for quality, did not change much between 2014/15 and 2017/18 – the only years for which consistent data is available. The share of ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ judgements increased slightly and the share of ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ judgements decreased slightly between 2014/15 and 2017/18. Ofsted inspections of children’s social care providers also changed little over the same time period.[31]

But Ofsted inspections are not helpful in measuring change in quality over time. Not all local authorities are measured each year, so changes between years are as likely to reflect a change in the number of councils inspected, rather than a change in quality of the same authorities.* No local authority has been inspected more than once under the Single Inspection Framework,[32] which was introduced in November 2013.[33] We cannot compare the same authorities’ scores before November 2013, because the criteria became stricter under the framework.**

Another indicator of the quality of children’s care services is the number of children on repeat plans – children going back onto a child protection plan, after their problems had been considered resolved. Here, the indications are less positive. The number of children on repeat plans has steadily increased since 2009/10, from just under 6,000 in 2009/10 to just over 12,000 in 2016/17. Of the children starting child protection plans in 2016/17, 19% were on them for the second or subsequent time, compared with 13% in 2009/10.[34] This may be a warning sign: it raises the question of whether more social workers are missing relevant issues or proposing inappropriate remedies the first-time round.***

*    The number of council inspection ratings increased from 59 in 2014/15 to 152 (all councils) in 2017/18.

** The category ‘adequate’ was replaced with ‘requires improvement’, and if a local authority was judged ‘inadequate’ in any of the categories ‘children who need help and protection’, ‘children looked after’ and ‘leadership, management and governance’, it was automatically judged ‘inadequate’ overall.

***    It may, however, also reflect that the child concerned is subject to new risks, although there is little quantitative evidence to suggest that children are facing more risks now than they were in 2009/10.


Has children’s social care become more efficient and can that be maintained?

Children’s social care appears to have become more efficient since 2009/10, as local authorities have made efficiencies in staff spending and social workers have become more productive.

One reason why local authorities have managed to meet rising demand without an equivalent rise in spending is that they have controlled the size of their wage bill (which makes up around a third of all spending on children’s social care). Between 2014/15 and 2016/17 – the only years for which we have consistent data – the number of social workers increased faster than spending on those workers. Whether this is because local authorities have held down social worker wages, or because they have hired fewer expensive experienced workers and recruited less-expensive newly qualified ones, they spent less per social worker in 2016/17 than in 2014/15.

There is limited evidence of economies in other spending areas. The cost of a fostering placement has come down,* but the evidence on the costs of residential placements is unclear.** At best we have an incomplete view of whether inputs from the other 66% of spending are increasing or decreasing, making any assessment of the extent of economies speculative.

But for the years for which we have consistent data, a crude review of the evidence suggests that children’s social care has become more productive, as local authorities have delivered more output (assessments, children visited) with less input (social workers), with limited impacts on our quality indicators.

Social worker activity increased faster than the number of social workers after 2014/15. The average social worker assessed and looked after more children in 2016/17 than they did in 2014/15. The number of children going back onto a child protection plan – an indicator of the quality of child protection – slightly increased over the same time period. The Office for National Statistics found that children’s social care productivity increased by 1% between 2009 and 2015.[35]*** However, as we have few consistent quality indicators and cannot observe input aside from local authority social workers, it is not clear how much, if at all, children’s social care productivity has increased since 2009/10.

Whether economising on staff costs and asking staff to do more will be sustainable over the medium term depends, ultimately, on whether the children’s social care workforce is prepared to do more work for less pay, or whether this will exacerbate recruitment and retention problems.

These problems are particularly concerning among children’s social workers, where the average time spent in the profession is less than eight years, compared with 16 for a nurse and 25 for a doctor.[36] Retention is also intrinsically important: a low retention rate will reduce children’s social worker stability – one of the most important aspects of children’s social care.[37] Vacancy rates, staff turnover and use of agency staff are indicators of whether efficiencies have been, and can be, maintained.

Vacancy and turnover rates increased from 2013/14 for two years, but then they were flat. To secure enough staff to meet demand, local authorities have turned to costly agency staff.[38] The high agency staff rate – 16% in 2017/18 – does not necessarily imply problems, as local authorities can use agency workers to cover seasonal peaks or deal with backlogs,[39] but this does not seem to be the case. Most agency workers, almost 75%, were covering vacancies in 2017/18, only a minor decline from 79% in 2015/16. Local authorities have expressed concerns about agency staff costs,[40] and councils in all nine English regions have collectively agreed Memorandums of Understanding to cap agency staff pay.[41]

The workforce is under greater pressure now than it was eight years ago. If pressure on social workers to handle more – and increasingly complex[42] – cases is behind these recruitment and retention problems, it indicates that the efficiencies are not sustainable. If local authorities end up using more agency staff to make up a shortfall of permanent staff, any productivity gains are likely to be counterbalanced by higher input costs.

Asking social workers to do more is also not a genuine efficiency if the quality of the work they are doing declines. The overall picture on quality is unclear, but differences between councils suggest that local recruitment and retention pressures might reduce quality. Ofsted[43] and the National Audit Office[44] have found that higher caseloads and numbers of vacancies and agency workers are related to worse inspection outcomes. The Education Policy Institute has found a link between regions with higher children’s social care caseloads and worse Ofsted ratings,[45] and research commissioned by the Department for Education found that the rate of re-referrals was higher in local authorities where social workers dealt with more children.[46]

Over the past eight years, local authorities have managed to deliver more children’s social care, mainly by asking social workers to take on more cases. But growing recruitment and retention problems suggest that it will be hard to keep using this strategy. The average social worker’s caseload – 17.8 cases[47] – is now greater than the average caseload in local authorities that Ofsted judged ‘good’ – typically between 10 and 14 cases.[48]

*    The Personal Social Services Research Unit’s annual unit costs publication suggests that the unit cost of a foster placement decreased by 15% between 2009/10 and 2016/17, although the definitions are not the same in each year. Meanwhile, the Audit Commission found that the daily cost of a foster placement fell 1% between 2008/09 and 2012/13. See Personal Social  Services Research Unit, ‘Unit Costs of Health and Social Care’, Personal Social Services Research Unit, various years, retrieved 14 September 2018,; Audit Commission, Councils’ Expenditure on Looked After Children, Audit Commission, 2014, p. 15.

**    The Personal Social Services Research Unit’s annual unit costs publication suggests that the unit cost of a local authority residential placement increased 34% and voluntary/privately run placements increased 22% between 2009/10 and 2016/17. In contrast, a 2015 Institute of Public Care report found evidence that some local authority fees paid to private and voluntary providers stayed flat or declined in recent years. See Personal Social Services Research Unit, ‘Unit Costs of Health and Social Care’, Personal Social Services Research Unit, various years, retrieved 14 September 2018, unit-costs; Institute of Public Care, Financial Stability, Cost Charge and Value for Money in the Children’s Residential Care Market, Department for Education, 2015, p. 47.

***    The Office for National Statistics’ method does not adjust for output quality; it measures spending rather than input; and it assumes that output=input for all spending aside from looked-after children – approximately two-thirds of inputs. This method makes the Office for National Statistics less likely to observe changes in productivity.


Have efficiencies been enough to meet demand?

Figure 2.6 Percentage of children subject to a child protection plan who had reviews within the required time, 2009/10 to 2016/17

An increase in efficiency may not be sufficient to meet rising demand. Even if children’s social care has become more efficient, if the changes have not bridged the gap between demand and spending, local authorities must ration services – requiring children to wait or not be seen at all.

Children’s social care services are statutory responsibilities of local authorities: they cannot legally refuse to meet need. But they can – tacitly, if not explicitly – change how they judge ‘need’. There is some (albeit mixed) evidence that local authorities are not providing services where they previously would have. In a 2017 survey of social workers, 70% said that the threshold for qualifying as a ‘child in need’ had risen over the previous three years,[49] although in 2016 the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) found that 60% of local authority respondents stated that thresholds in their authority had not changed in the previous two years.[50]

Whether thresholds have changed or not, child protection services have prioritised their limited resources towards children most at risk. The timeliness of reviews for children on child protection plans* has declined, although initial child protection conferences – the stage immediately before a child protection plan[51] – are happening faster.** In 2016/17, 77.3% of initial child protection conferences were held within 15 working days*** of starting a Section 47 assessment, up from 66.2% in 2009/10. As vulnerable children not on a child protection plan are likely to be at greater risk,**** this improvement most likely represents social workers prioritising their work to get at-risk children into the child protection system, rather than checking on children already in it.

Overspending – spending more at the end of the year than budgeted at the start – is another sign that efficiencies have not been sufficient to meet demand. The National Audit Office estimates that local authorities have overspent their children’s services budget every year since 2010/11, and that annual overspending has risen rapidly since 2012/13.[52] Local authorities overspent their children’s services budget by almost £820m in 2017/18.[53] Most of this was driven by overspending on looked-after children and safeguarding – children’s social care.

Local authorities are legally obliged to balance their budgets, so these overspends are not an easy choice. Overspending on children’s social care will have meant that local authorities have squeezed spending on other areas of local government (see Chapter 3 on neighbourhood services).

*    There are statutory targets that a child should have a review of their child protection plan within the first three months of being the subject of the plan, and then at intervals of not more than six months.

**    This may be due to changes in children-in-need census guidance, new guidance, and data that Ofsted now asks for as part of its assessments, all of which could have improved local recording of conferences after starting Section 47 assessments.

***    Fifteen days is a recommended target, rather than a statutory requirement, but is still a useful measure of timeliness. See Plymouth City Council, ‘1.3.3 Section 47 enquiries’, Plymouth City Council, no date, retrieved 14 September 2018,

****    Vulnerable children not on a child protection plan are likely to be at a greater risk because they have not had an assessment, and their potential needs are not yet known to social workers.