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The 152 upper-tier local authorities in England have statutory responsibility for protecting the welfare of children and delivering children’s social care. Social care services are generally situated within or alongside broader children’s services.

The Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for the legal and policy frameworks within which children’s social care services operate. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) provides funding to local authorities for children’s services. Children’s social care is a devolved policy area.

The legal context

The Children Act 1989 (as amended) places a duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need within their area, by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.

Local authorities are the statutory point of referral for any concerns about risks to children’s welfare. They have the autonomy to set their own protocols for working with children referred to their social care, although these must be consistent with legislation and the Government’s statutory guidance.

When a child is referred to a local authority, the authority will assess the course of action to take based on the safeguarding thresholds set in its protocols. Depending on what the local authority assesses the severity of the risk to the child to be, courses of action could include:

  • no further action or a referral to more universal services;
  • the provision of services appropriate to the child’s needs (under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989);
  • a child protection conference, which might result in a child protection plan (under Section 47 of the Children Act 1989); and
  • in the most severe cases, action to take the child into the care of the local authority.

The policy context

In July 2016, the DfE published Putting children first, setting out its ambition to reform and improve children’s social care by 2020. The Department subsequently revised its ambition: “to ensure that all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, receive the same high quality of care and support by 2022”, and published a ‘roadmap’ for how it intends to transform children’s social care services.

The Government’s reform programme aims to achieve:

  • a highly capable and skilled social work workforce;
  • high-performing services everywhere; and
  • a practice and learning system that enables, identifies and spreads excellence and innovation.

To this end, the Department has funded and implemented a range of initiatives, including: £200 million distributed through the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme; £15 million for a Supporting Families: Investing in Practice programme; £45 million for Partners in Practice; Regional Improvement Alliances; a What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care; £84 million over five years from April 2019 to support up to 20 local authorities to improve their social work practice; workforce initiatives; and a National Stability Forum.

In 2016, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded that the DfE was “worryingly complacent” that nothing could be done to improve services more quickly. In a further inquiry, completed in 2019, the Committee criticised the Government’s “slow progress” with reforming children’s services and called on it to “improve both the quality and the cost-effectiveness of children’s social care in measurable ways by its goal of 2022”.

Demand for social care

As at 31 March 2018: 404,710 children were assessed as being in need; 53,790 children had a child protection plan in place; and 75,420 children were being looked after.

DfE data on local authority social care activity between 31 March 2010 and 2018 showed an increase in activity across a range of measures: children in need (+8%), child protection enquiries (+122%), child protection plans (+38%) and looked after children (+17%). The number of referrals made to children’s social care services per year also increased by 7% from around 615,000 in 2010/11 to 665,000 in 2017/18.

Multiple factors have been attributed as potentially contributing to the increase in demand for children’s social care services, including:

  • Wider societal determinants linked to poverty.
  • New and greater risks to children and young people – for example, from County Lines, gang violence, and child sexual exploitation.
  • An increased number of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children.
  • A growth in the overall child population.
  • An increase in the number of assessments of children in need which feature risks to child welfare from domestic abuse, parental mental ill-health and parental substance misuse.
  • Cuts to early intervention services, leading to greater demand for acute social care.
  • Greater awareness and referrals in the wake of high profile cases, such as those involving child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and other areas, and the murders of Peter Connelly (known as “Baby P”) and Daniel Pelka.
  • More care leavers as a result of the increase in the number of children looked after and extended care leaver duties to age 25.

There is limited understanding of the relative importance of different drivers of demand.

Funding for social care

Local authority children’s services are funded primarily through grant funding from central government. Funding is not ring-fenced; it is for local authorities to decide how to prioritise their spending.

In addition to the core funding allocated through the current local government finance settlement, the Government announced additional funding for children’s social care at the Autumn Budget 2018:

  • an additional £410 million in 2019/20 for adults and children’s social care; and
  • £84 million over 5 years from April 2019 to support up to 20 local authorities to improve their social work practice and decision-making.

The increase in demand for children’s social care services, combined with reductions in central government funding to local authorities and increases in care costs, has increasingly put local authorities’ finances under pressure. According to the Local Government Association (LGA), spending on children’s social care has increased at a faster rate than any other area of council business.

Local authorities in England spent £8.84 billion on children’s social care in 2017/18; nine out of ten authorities exceeded their spending budgets. Whilst local authorities overall have protected funding for children’s social care, they have significantly reduced spending on non-statutory preventative and early intervention children’s services.

Commentators are concerned that the current levels of funding are not sustainable. The LGA estimates that children’s services will face a £1.1 billion funding gap in 2019/20 and a funding gap of around £3 billion by 2024/25.

Variation between local authorities

There is considerable variation between local authorities in the activity and cost of children’s social care. There is limited understanding of why this occurs, although there is a consensus that the level of deprivation in an area is a key contributory factor.

Some variation in children’s social care activity between local authorities is to be expected. However, some commentators are concerned that vulnerable children and families face a “postcode lottery” in the levels of social care support provided by local authorities.

The Government has commissioned external research to improve its understanding of the relative drivers of ‘need to spend’ on children’s services. The research is expected to be completed by summer 2019.

Standards of social care services

Ofsted inspections show that the overall effectiveness of local authorities’ children’s services in England has improved; the proportion judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ increased from 36% (after every local authority’s first Single Inspection Framework inspection) to 42% at 31 August 2018, with a decrease in the proportion judged ‘inadequate’, from 22% to 13%. 45% of authorities at 31 August 2018 were judged to ‘require improvement to be good’.

The DfE is responsible for intervening in services that Ofsted judges inadequate. At 10 December 2018, the DfE was intervening and directly working with 21 local authorities on this basis.

The social care workforce

Many local authorities are experiencing difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified social workers, with a consequent reliance on more costly agency social workers.

Nationally, at 30 September 2018 there was a social worker vacancy rate of 16.5%, a turnover rate of 15.2% and an agency staff rate of 15.4%. However, the national figures mask large variations between local authorities: with children’s social worker vacancy rates ranging from 49.5% to 0%; and agency staff rates varying from 53.8% to 0.9%.

National and local initiatives have been introduced to address workforce challenges. The Local Government Association has called on the Government to work with local government on a national recruitment campaign.

Outcomes for children in need

It is generally acknowledged both that the majority of looked after children experience more positive outcomes than they would have if they were not taken into care, and that children in care often experience better outcomes than those in the wider group of ‘children in need’. However, children in care and those leaving care face a variety of lower outcomes compared to their peers.

Understanding the routes to and causes of these outcomes is challenging. In particular, it is an area of contention as to whether these outcomes are a necessary result of the circumstances that children in the care system have experienced, or whether the care system could and should do more to alleviate and mitigate these impacts.

The DfE has completed a review of support for children in need to help understand what makes a difference to and what is needed to improve those children’s educational outcomes.

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