Skip to main content

Exploratory analyses of the rates of children looked after in English local authorities (2010-2017)

A priority for the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care is reducing the need for children to be in care.

The aim of this study was to inform the intervention research and systematic reviews being planned for the What Works Centre between 2018 and 2020, by exploring local authority variation in the rates of children in care in England. This was done through exploratory analyses of existing local authority-level aggregate data.

As well as exploring the factors that are associated with high rates of children in care, this study also explored how and why the numbers of children in care have been changing over the years. We were particularly interested to explore the changes in the rate of children in care over the last five financial years, between 2012/13 and 2016/17, on the basis that this timing will be more relevant to current policy regimes in local authorities.

Variables in the analyses included macro-level variables such as the percentage of low income families in a local authority area, and social work system variables such as the expenditure on children in need, social work turnover, innovation funding and Ofsted ratings. Each of these variables were tested for their association with the rate and the change in the rate of children in care. Unfortunately, it was not possible to conduct sophisticated statistical analyses involving several variables considered together, because data availability differed between time periods or data were only available for one point in time.

The analyses of the rate of children looked after per 10,000 children in different English local authorities revealed interesting regional patterns. Local authorities in Inner London and Outer London regions showed a reduction in rates of children looked after over time, whereas those in the North West and North East showed a marked increase in the rate of children in care over time.

The following factors were associated with lower average rates of children in care in local authorities:

  • lower proportions of low-income families in the area
  • higher expenditure on children in need
  • participation in the DfE’s Innovation Programme
  • better Ofsted judgements
  • higher proportions of social worker turnover

The following factors were associated with an average decrease in the rate of children in care per 10,000 children in local authorities in England:

  • a decrease in the proportions of low-income families
  • participation in the DfE’s Innovation Programme
  • better Ofsted judgements

The analyses suggest that both economic factors and service quality may be relevant to reducing the rate of children in care and both should be considered in studies taken forward by the What Works Centre between 2018 and 2020.

The service context for reducing the need for care was examined in greater detail through a national survey and in-depth interviews with senior figures in 30 authorities across England. Findings from these are reported separately.