Children's social care

Children’s social care services support children with the greatest need – children who are disabled, who have to be protected from harm or who need to be placed in residential or foster care.

Demand for children’s social care services is rising. Local authorities have persistently overspent on these services but, even so, the increase in spending has not kept pace with demand. There are signs that the quality of service has declined over the past decade as a result and local authorities continue to face problems recruiting and retaining staff.

With additional money announced in the 2019 spending round, local authorities should be able to meet demand for children’s social care. However, demand may grow faster than projected, and local authorities may choose to channel extra funding to adult social care.

In general, children’s social care is delivered through demand-led services that local authorities have a legal duty to provide, such as support for disabled children, protecting children from harm and taking responsibility for ‘looked-after children’,* including through foster and residential care placements.[1] Children’s social care is funded and delivered by 151 top-tier local authorities in England.**,[2] In 2017/18, these local authorities spent £7.9 billion (bn) on this care.*** This was 13% of their locally controlled budgets.****

The specialist children’s social care services mentioned above, though catering to less than 10% of the child population each year,***** account for a growing majority of council spending on children’s services. The wider local authority provision for children also includes Sure Start children’s centres, services for young people and youth justice, but councils have greater discretion over the level of service they provide.[3] Although this chapter does not focus on these services, we refer to them where they provide helpful context.

* A child is defined as looked after if they get accommodation from the local authority for a continuous period of more than 24 hours, are subject to a care order (to put the child into the care of the local authority) or are subject to a placement order (to put the child up for adoption).

** In parts of England covered by the 26 county councils, there are two tiers of local government, with multiple district councils sitting below each county council. In these areas, the county council has responsibility for children’s social care.

*** This chapter assesses services for looked-after children, safeguarding and family support services. These three spending categories are used 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 2017/18. For earlier years, we adjusted the categories used at that time to replicate the three categories as closely as possible. Our full methodology is available on request.

**** By which we mean 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.

***** In 2017/18, 6% of the child population had an episode of need, and it has been estimated that around one in 10 children have needed a social worker at some point in the past six years. See Department for Education, Help, Protection, Education: Concluding the Children in Need review, Department for Education, 2019.

Children’s social care spending has increased by 16% while spending on wider children’s services has fallen

Change in total spending on children’s social care in England since 2009/10 (real terms)While local authorities have increased spending on children’s social care, the picture has been challenging for children’s services as a whole.

Overall spending on children’s services has fallen over the past decade: spending on Sure Start children’s centres, services for young people and youth justice was slashed by 56% between 2009/10 and 2017/18. The biggest victim of the cuts – in both relative and absolute terms – has been Sure Start children’s centres. Local authorities’ spending on these centres fell from £1.5bn in 2009/10 to less than £0.7bn in 2017/18, a real-terms fall of 62%.

Local authority leaders have raised concerns that these cuts to preventative, early-intervention services may have been a false economy – saving money in the short term but increasing future demand for more acute services.[4] But so far there is limited evidence to support or refute this.[5] The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that greater access to Sure Start children’s centres led to fewer hospitalisations among primary school-aged children. But these savings only offset 6% of the amount spent on the children’s centres.[6]

Similarly, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that “local authorities which have closed children’s centres [since 2010] have not had any consequential increases in child protection plans”.[7] However, it looked at building closures, rather than the number of children and families served by the centres. It therefore does not reflect the fact that local authorities targeted closures on those centres providing least community benefit, and in some cases increased the services available in remaining ones.

Alongside these cuts to wider children’s services, children’s social care has received a considerable boost in spending. Between 2009/10 and 2017/18, spending on children’s social care increased by 16% in real terms, from £6.0bn to £7.9bn. Despite this increase, evidence of pressure on these services led the then Chancellor Philip Hammond to announce additional funding in the 2018 budget, which allocated £410 million (m) in 2019/20 for “immediate pressures”[8] in both adult and children’s social care.

That budget also included an additional £84m over five years to help stem the rising number of children in care in up to 20 local authorities,[9] and the 2019 spending round – delivered by Sajid Javid, who succeeded Hammond as chancellor in July 2019 – announced an additional £1bn of central government funding for social care in 2020/21. However, no details were given on how the latter would be split between adult and children’s social care.[10]

The number of children in England has grown by 6% since 2009/10

Change in the number of children in England since 2009/10

There are 6% more children in England today than there were in 2009/10.[11] This provides a helpful baseline for likely demand but does not tell us anything about how the level of need within the children’s population may have changed over time. Data on the number of ‘children in need’, ‘initial contacts’ – any request for information or advice about a child or service for a child – and referrals provides a closer insight into direct demand on children’s social care services, but the evidence is mixed.

There are more cases of children in need, though these have risen less quickly than the overall child population since 2009/10.* There has been a much faster rise in both the number of people contacting local authorities with concerns about the wellbeing of a child and the number of children being referred to social services for assessment.

The number of initial contacts received by children’s social care departments rose by 37% between 2009/10 and 2017/18, from 1,746,670 to 2,394,730, according to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).[12] The number of actual referrals to children’s social care has also grown more quickly than the number of children in England – rising by 9%, from 603,700 referrals in 2009/10 to 659,550 in 2017/18.[13]

The growing prevalence of disability among children is likely to have contributed to increased demand for children’s social care. The proportion of children reporting a disability to the Family Resources Survey** has increased, up from 6% in 2005/06 to 8% in 2016/17.[14]

But not all children requiring support will be known to local authorities. There will be additional, unmet need. A research paper from Dartington Service Design Lab, looking at children with high needs – that is, “multiple impairments and/or risks to their health and development” – estimated that 24% of children have high needs, but only a quarter of that number receive appropriate support from local authorities.[15]

Similarly, the children’s commissioner has calculated that there are 2.3m children in England “living in families with substantial complex needs”, but that 1.6m receive no additional support from local authorities, including 830,000 who are not known to children’s services at all.[16]

Growing awareness of this unmet need and a lower risk appetite – in part a result of high-profile child protection failures, such as the death of Peter Connelly (known as Baby P) in 2007 – are likely to have resulted in more of these children being brought to social services’ attention, contributing to the rapid rise in inquiries and referrals. The NAO has found that high-profile child protection failures can lead to more people reporting concerns about children and made local authorities more aware of issues such as child sexual exploitation, gang culture and radicalisation.[17] As a result, public sector bodies – including local authorities, the police and schools – are now more likely to identify and respond to risks of harm.

Policy changes have also increased local authorities’ responsibilities to provide support to children. In 2018, analysis by ADCS found that local authorities now have almost 300 statutory duties to provide services for children and young people,[18] a large increase compared with the roughly 200 identified in a 2011 government review.[19] For example:

  • The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 places a duty on local authorities to treat a child remanded in youth detention as a looked-after child and to meet the costs of under-18s remanded to youth offending institutions.[20] According to ADCS, Youth Justice Board grants to local authorities fall far short of the actual costs of remand.[21]
  • Local authorities are now required to support care leavers and young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND)[22] up to the age of 25, rather than 18.
  • Other policy changes, such as the 2017 decision to extend upfront charges for non-urgent NHS treatment,[23] may have pushed the cost of some NHS care onto local authorities.[24]

* The number of children with an episode of need – where a local authority defines a child as requiring support from statutory services – at any point during the year increased from 675,030 in 2012/13 to 705,060 in 2017/18, a rise of 4.4%. But the number of episodes of need – accounting for the fact that some children will have multiple episodes of need within a year – rose by just 3.4% between 2012/13 and 2017/18 and reached a peak in 2013/14. This is a better measure of demand on local authorities.

** A continuous household survey that collects information on a representative sample of private households in the UK.

Recruitment and retention problems continue despite an increase in the number of children’s social workers

Number of children’s social workers

The data around children’s social workers does not make for positive reading – and suggests a number of serious challenges for a workforce that is as vital as it is pressured.

Although the number of children’s social workers has increased, there has been a notable drop in the number of experienced staff. There are also serious problems in staff recruitment and retention, and morale among social workers is low.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) statistics on the children’s social care workforce are experimental, so some caution is required when comparing figures between years; however, this is the best information currently available. According to this data, the number of children’s social workers grew by 16% between 2014/15 and 2017/18. Over the same period, spending on staff working in children’s social care* only increased by 11% in real terms – in other words, average pay fell – though spending increased more quickly than staff numbers in 2017/18.**

One reason why average pay fell is that children’s social workers are on average now less experienced. Between 2015/16 and 2018/19, the number of staff with more than five years’ experience fell by 11%, while the number with less than five years’ experience rose by 37%.[25]

Number of vacancies for children’s social workersAccording to the Local Government Association’s Workforce Survey, 84% of top-tier local authorities report difficulties recruiting children’s social workers and 66% report retention problems. These figures are higher than for any other local government occupation.[26]

Between September 2013 and September 2018, the number of full-time-equivalent vacancies increased by 61% – from 3,610 to 5,810 – though the rate of increase has slowed since 2015/16 and the number of vacancies fell slightly in 2018/19.

Most vacancies are covered by agency workers, though some remain unstaffed.[27] Local authorities’ use of agency staff to fill gaps has meant that the number of full-time-equivalent agency staff increased by 64% between 2013/14 and 2016/17, from 3,250 to 5,330. The number of agency staff has remained broadly unchanged since then, while the number of directly employed social workers has increased.

In 2017/18, 34% of the budget for children’s social care was spent on employing children’s social workers[28] but this figure does not include spending on agency staff.

Data on local authority spending on agency workers is not routinely published. However, the BBC made Freedom of Information (FoI) requests and found that it had almost doubled in cash terms between 2012/13 and 2016/17, from £180m to £356m.[29] As a result of more recent FoI requests, The Guardian found that 129 local authorities spent £335m on agency children’s social workers in 2017/18, a fall from £360m spent in 2016/17 and £342m in 2015/16.[30] This reduction is largely due to local authorities collaborating regionally to agree caps on the rates they will pay for agency social workers.[31]

The turnover rate among children’s social workers – the number who leave their jobs each year as a percentage of the total – has been consistently high over the past decade, reaching a peak of 17% in 2014/15.[32]

High turnover can indicate low staff morale. According to the DfE’s 2019 longitudinal study of children’s social workers, 73% reported being satisfied with their job – but, despite this, 51% agreed that their workload was too high, 47% said they were being asked to fulfil too many roles in their job and 51% said they felt stressed.[33]

Survey data from the British Association of Social Workers also points to low – and falling – morale. In 2018, 62% of children’s social workers said they were considering leaving their current job, up from 55% the year before. Social workers cited high levels of stress, job dissatisfaction, poor client behaviour and attending work when ill enough to take sick leave as key problems, which had all worsened between 2017 and 2018.[34]

* This includes all staff, not just children’s social workers.

** Before 2014/15, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government data did not distinguish between spending on children’s services employees and children’s social care employees.

The cost of foster and residential care placements has increased

Change in the cost of foster and residential care placements per child per week of care since 2011/12 (real terms)

The largest component of children’s care spending (taking up 47% of the budget in 2017/18) is services for looked-after children, and the cost of this has risen steeply in recent years.

The cost of both foster placements and placements in local authority residential care has risen faster than economy-wide inflation in recent years. According to the Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU), the cost per child per week of foster care* rose by 12% in real terms between 2011/12 and 2017/18,** from £523 to £646, with most of this increase occurring between 2011/12 and 2013/14. There is some evidence to suggest that the shortage of foster carers has enabled independent foster agencies to raise their prices, leading to increased costs for local authorities.[35]

But the cost of local authority residential care placements rose even more steeply, with the cost per child per week increasing by 42% in real terms, from £2,999 to £4,705, over the same period. In contrast, the PSSRU found that the cost of placements in independent care homes – that is, those that the private or voluntary sector run – fell by 22% in real terms between 2011/12 and 2017/18, from £3,967 to £3,414, though the unit cost rose in the most recent two years.[36]

The Independent Care Homes Association (ICHA) reports a similar trend. Its surveys of care home providers found that “after a long period where providers reported a price freeze or decline, some higher fees were starting to be achieved” from 2016 onwards, though small providers have found it harder to raise fees than larger providers.[37] ICHA says that prices have risen in response to increased costs for providers, including the cost of complying with government policies such as sleeping-in allowances, the national minimum wage and automatic pension enrolment.[38]

Local authority demand for residential placements has exceeded independent care home capacity. Only 41% of local authorities reported access to enough places for 16- and 17-year olds, with less than a third saying the same for 14- and 15-year olds.[39] This scarcity of places may have enabled providers to raise prices.

Due to the lack of data on staff and running costs in residential care, it is not possible to assess whether care placement prices have risen faster or slower than costs, and therefore whether local authorities have made economies by squeezing care homes’ margins. Similarly, it is not possible to assess how productively care homes are operating and whether this has changed over recent years.

* The PSSRU does not provide separate figures for local authority and independent foster care.

** A change in the methodology used for calculating unit costs means that it is only possible to compare figures since 2011/12.

Local authorities are undertaking more children’s social work activity than ever before

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

Assessing need, putting in place protection plans and providing care are the core work of children’s social care departments, and there has been a considerable increase in all areas since 2009/10. In particular, Section 47 enquiries – where a team of social workers, police officers and teachers undertake an assessment if there is concern that a child is at risk of significant harm – have more than doubled, from 89,300 in 2009/10 to 198,090 in 2017/18.

But this is not the only area that has seen a rise. Following an enquiry, a child may be placed on a child protection plan. This should include clear actions that the local authority and others will take to support the child, the timescale they should be completed in and measures of success.[40] Between 2009/10 and 2017/18, the number of children on a child protection plan increased by 38%, from 39,100 to 53,790.

Children can be taken into care in cases where a local authority believes that they are at risk of significant harm. This can happen either with the parents’ or the child’s consent or following a court decision. The number of local authority court applications to take children into care rose by 22% between 2009/10 and 2017/18, from 11,159 to 13,563, though it has fallen in the past two years.[41] The total number of looked-after children increased by 17%, from 64,460 to 75,420, over the same period.

It is unclear whether recent rapid growth in the number of looked-after children will continue. The number of care order applications fell in both 2017/18 and 2018/19. The chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has argued that this fall is due to “concerted edge-of-care support programmes in an increasing number of local authorities and the government’s focus on understanding why demand peaked in 2017”.[42]

In the past year, the main driver of the increase in the number of children in care was that fewer children left care (the number of children entering care fell).

There is also evidence that children’s social workers are dealing with more complex cases. The age of looked-after children has increased in recent years; the number of looked-after children entering care aged under four increased by 8% between 2009/10 and 2017/18, whereas the number of those aged 16 and over grew by 78% over the same period.[43]

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have been a major driver of this increase. Of the 4,480 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in 2017/18, more than 80% were aged 16 and over. The number of older unaccompanied asylum-seeking children grew by more than 150% between 2012/13 and 2017/18.[44] This accounts for more than 60% of the total rise in looked-after children aged 16 and over during this period.

Older children are more likely to have been in difficult circumstances for longer, with greater potential for damage to their physical and mental health and development, and so a greater need for support. As part of a 2019 report on children’s social care, local authorities told the NAO that older children taken into care “often have more complex needs and as a result are harder to place into foster care and are more likely to go into residential care, which is more costly”.[45]

A greater proportion of children entering care are doing so due to abuse or neglect.* In 2009/10, 52% of children who started to be looked after during the year did so because of abuse or neglect; by 2017/18, this had risen to 61%.[46] These children may also have more complex needs and require additional, more costly support.

Rising complexity may explain the growth in the number of placements in residential care, which tends to be for children with the greatest needs.[47] Between 2014/15 and 2017/18, the number of residential care placements grew by 20%, compared with a 9% increase in the total number of looked-after children over this period.[48]

The quality of care is probably falling

It is not straightforward to say whether children’s social care is working or not. Ideally, an assessment would be based on whether children with high levels of need are supported and go on to lead successful and fulfilling lives. However, there is no comprehensive and reliable evidence on the impact that care has on children, or how this has changed over time.

Instead, it is necessary to look at proxy measures of quality. Here, the evidence available is mixed and there will be substantial variation between individual local authorities. However – on balance – it appears that the overall quality of children’s social care services in England has declined.

The results of Ofsted inspections of local authority children’s services departments have improved since 2013, with more councils being rated as Outstanding or Good, and fewer being judged as Requires Improvement or Inadequate.[49] However, two different inspection frameworks have been used during this time: the Single Inspection Framework (SIF) from 2013 to 2018 and Inspections of Local Authority Children’s Services (ILACS) from 2018 onwards. Only a minority of local authorities were inspected more than once under SIF, and ILACS uses amended criteria.

Ofsted ratings are therefore not a reliable basis for judging changes in the quality of children’s social care in England over time.

Another indication that quality may be improving comes from the fact that the proportion of re-referrals within 12 months of a previous referral fell from 25.6% in 2010/11 (the first year for which figures are available) to 21.9% in 2017/18.[50] A possible explanation for this is that local authorities have become better at making initial assessments of whether children are in need.

Proportion of children who became the subject of a child protection plan during the year who did so for the second or subsequent time, since 2009/10

Data on the number of children who are the subject of a child protection plan for a second or subsequent time suggests that performance has declined. In 2009/10, the proportion of children in this category stood at 13%, but this had risen to 20% by 2017/18. In some cases, repeat plans will be due to new risks arising but they can also  be an indication that child protection review conferences are judging incorrectly that the problems the children initially presented with have been resolved.

Another sign that the quality of children’s social care may be slipping is that fewer reviews of child protection plans are being carried out on time (within the first three months of being subject to a plan and then at least every six months thereafter). In 2009/10, 97% were carried out on time; by 2017/18, this had fallen to 91%.[51] It may be sensible to delay a review conference – for example, due to a criminal proceeding, or not holding it in school holidays to allow a teacher to be present – but there is no reason to think that these explanations should have increased over time.

Rather, the fall in reviews carried out on time may show a ‘hollowing out’ of child protection, with fewer services provided, a lower number of social worker visits and less long-term support for children. There has been a decline in the proportion of child protection plans that lasted for a year or more, from 31.4% in 2009/10 to 27.2% in 2017/18.[52]

Local authorities may be ending child protection plans sooner due to more active and effective management of cases but, given the growing proportion of repeat child protection plans, it is more likely that support is being removed sooner than it should be.

Academic evidence suggests that local authorities with high levels of demand for their children’s social care services:

  • tend to screen out more children during assessments**
  • have more children in need per social worker
  • are less likely to work long term with children in need (including having shorter child protection plans)
  • have higher rates of re-referrals within 12 months.[53]

If higher demand correlates with lower quality, then given that demand is increasing nationally it is reasonable to infer that the quality of children’s social care may have declined across the country.

* The other categories are: child’s disability, parent’s illness or disability, family in acute stress, family dysfunction, socially unacceptable behaviour, low income and absent parenting.

** That is, assess that those children do not meet the necessary threshold to provide additional support.

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

There is evidence that local authorities have managed to reduce what they pay to independent care homes and hold down social worker pay, helping to meet growing demands in some areas even as spending has not increased as rapidly.

But this does not appear to have been sufficient to head off a decline in quality in some areas and high levels of staff vacancies and poor (and declining) staff morale suggest that children’s social workers will struggle to continue working at the same intensity as they have been in recent years.

The cost per child per week in independent residential care was 22% lower in real terms in 2017/18 than in 2011/12. Local authorities effectively squeezed the margins of care providers, particularly smaller operators – but councils were not able to cut the cost of their own residential and fostering care, for which costs per place rose by 42% and 12% respectively in real terms over the same period.

Local authorities have had more success controlling the wage bill of social workers by limiting pay rises: local authority staff received a 1% pay rise in April 2013 (after three years of 0% increases), followed by a 2.2% increase in January 2015, and 1% rises in April 2016 and April 2017.[54]

It is not clear from the evidence whether children’s social workers have become more productive. The workforce has grown more quickly than growth in demand for the most acute services they provide to children. The numbers of looked-after children and of children subject to a child protection plan have risen less quickly than the number of social workers over recent years. However, the number of Section 47 enquiries and local authority court applications to take children into care have both risen more quickly than staff numbers.

The types of cases that social workers are dealing with also appear to have become more complex on average. Children entering care are now older and so tend to have more complex needs; local authorities are also looking after more children as a result of abuse and neglect, which may entail additional support. Tellingly, the use of residential care, usually reserved for those with greatest need, has grown substantially, particularly from 2015 onwards.

The Office for National Statistics has found that children’s social care productivity increased by 2.2% between 2009 and 2016, before falling in the past two years.[55],* However, its figures do not adjust for the quality of care provided and there is evidence that this has fallen, with more repeat child protection plans, fewer reviews of child protection plans being carried out on time and less long-term work with children in need.

* The Office for National Statistics’ method 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 it less likely to observe changes in productivity.

Have efficiencies been enough to meet demand?

Growing demand for children’s social care has placed pressure on local authorities, which appear to have taken tough decisions to cope – focusing their resources on those most in need. Principally, there is some evidence that local authorities have limited eligibility for care as a way to make savings.

Though local authorities have legal obligations to meet need if it passes a certain threshold, in some cases the level that threshold is set at has changed. In 2017 the National Children’s Bureau carried out a survey of 1,600 children’s social workers, 70% of whom reported that the threshold to qualify as a child in need had risen in the previous three years.[56] In a survey of councillors with responsibility for children’s services in the same year, 40% said that a lack of resources prevented them from meeting their statutory duties to children.[57]

Percentage of initial child protection conferences held within 15 working days of starting a Section 47 assessment since 2009/10

There is also some evidence that local authorities are prioritising their activities to ensure they serve the most vulnerable children, even if that leads to a lower-quality service elsewhere. As mentioned above, the percentage of children who are already the subject of a child protection plan who have reviews within the required time has fallen: from 97% in 2009/10 to 91% in 2017/18.

However, over the same period, the proportion of initial child protection conferences that took place within 15 working days* of starting a Section 47 assessment increased from 66% to 77% (see the figure above). This is an indication that local authorities are focusing their resources on the most vulnerable children. Children who have started a Section 47 assessment but not yet had an initial child protection conference are likely to be at greater risk than children who are already subject to a child protection plan because no programme of support will yet be in place for them.

Despite these efforts to ration and prioritise services, local authorities have consistently overspent on children’s services. According to the NAO, 63% of local authorities overspent on these services in 2010/11 but this rose to 91% by 2017/18. While local authorities have overspent on other areas during the period, children’s services is the only area where overspending has occurred in every year since 2010/11.[58]

In 2010/11, this overspending stood at £237m;[59] by 2017/18, the total overspend had risen to £957m (or a 14% overspend on their originally planned budget). The biggest contributor to this was spending on looked-after children where local authorities exceeded their planned budgets by £686m.[60]

* Fifteen days is a recommended target, rather than a statutory requirement, but is still a useful measure of timeliness.

How will demand change?

Current spending plans should be broadly able to meet growing demand for children’s social care. But if demand grows faster than expected or if local authorities increase spending on adult social care faster, then central government will be left with some politically difficult decisions over what responsibilities local authorities should take on, and how much money they would need to meet them.

We project that demand for children’s social care will grow by 7.4% between 2018/19 and 2023/24 (see the table below). This assumes that the prevalence of children in foster and residential care continues to grow at the same average annual rate seen since 2007/08, 2007 being the year in which Peter Connelly died.

We assume that demands for other areas of children’s social care – that is, services for looked-after children, safeguarding services and family support services – will grow at the same average annual rate as the number of episodes of children in need since 2012/13, which is the first year for which consistent data is available.*

Projected spending and demand for children’s social care

Children's social care

Projected increase in demand by 2023/24 7.4%
Spending scenario Local authority spending power Recent trajectory Meet demand
Change in real-terms spending by 2023/24 7.3% 12.6% 7.4%
Spending in 2023/24 (2017/18 prices) £8.9bn £9.3bn £8.9bn
Impact on unprotected government spending (2018/19 prices) £0.0bn -£0.4bn £0.0bn
Projected gap (2018/19 prices) £0.0bn -£0.4bn £0.0bn

Source: Institute for Government calculations. See Chapter 13, Methodology.

These projections suggest that local authorities would need to spend £612m a year more in real terms by 2023/24 than they did in 2018/19 to meet growing demand, and to maintain the scope and quality of children’s social care, assuming these services continue to be delivered as efficiently as they were in 2018/19. Meeting demand would entail a slower pace of spending growth than has been seen over the past three years: 1.4% a year on average for the period 2018/19 to 2023/24, compared with 2.4% a year on average from 2015/16 to 2018/19.

If, instead, spending rose in line with local authority spending power, then we estimate that children’s social care would face a gap of just £9m a year by 2023/24. On the face of it, therefore, current government spending plans appear to be broadly sufficient to maintain the quality of children’s social care. However, there is substantial uncertainty. If Peter Connelly’s death led to a rapid but temporary increase in the number of children in care after 2007/08, then our projections for growth in the number of children in foster and residential care may be an overestimate. If so, the growth in local authority spending power would be more than enough to meet demand.

However, there are also good reasons to think that spending will not rise as quickly as demand. First, local authorities may prioritise spending on adult social care, demand for which is projected to grow substantially faster than local authority spending power.

Second, our demand projection may be an underestimate as the growth in the number of children in foster and residential care has been higher since 2014/15, substantially so in the case of residential care, which is particularly expensive. If these growth rates continued, demand would grow by 10.3% by 2023/24, rather than by 7.4%.

It is unclear whether local authorities would be able to make the efficiencies needed to meet this higher level of demand. It may be possible to find savings through reducing the costs of placing children in foster or residential care, or holding down staff wages, but this will be difficult given rising costs for placements and problems recruiting and retaining social workers.

Central government could seek to reduce local authority responsibilities by removing some of the legal duties imposed on them but doing so would be politically difficult. Indeed, the government withdrew a proposal to allow local authorities to apply for an exemption from the Children and Social Work Act 2017 following widespread opposition from children’s charities.[61]

The government does have some plans in place to provide additional funding and support to local authorities to help them manage demands for children’s social care services, as covered in this section. Its wider social care reform programme – Putting Children First – is due to be delivered by 2022, having been delayed by two years.[62] However, it is unclear whether this will lead to any short-term savings for local authorities.

* See Chapter 13, Methodology.