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On measuring the number of vulnerable children in England

We provide in this report preliminary and experimental estimates of the number of vulnerable children. By “vulnerability” we mean here the additional needs or barriers children face may make them likely to live healthy, happy, safe lives, or less likely to have successful transitions to adulthood. Vulnerability can take a wide range of different forms, including physical and mental health difficulties, family problems, and risks of abuse of harm.

We have attempted to measure vulnerability in a range of ways to capture the diversity of meanings attached to the word. There are many different indicators used in different ways by different government departments, agencies and others, leading to confusion about the nature and prevalence of types of vulnerability. Behind the confusion are unidentified and invisible children, suffering a variety of harms and risks. Society and Government will respond more effectively to these issues if there is more clarity about how many children are vulnerable in which ways.

In future versions of this work the label of vulnerability may change. We will consult on this conceptual framework and undertake more analytical work before publishing improved estimates later this year.

As part of this work, we also intend to shed light on children who are “invisible” to the system or whose needs are hidden in some way. This can mean a number of things, such as children who are:


  • Not known to services – the child is not recorded in information systems used by relevant authorities;
  • Part of a group for which there are no official statistics;
  • Part of a group for which there are only very limited or poor quality studies on views, experiences and outcomes, so their views and concerns are not heard;
  • Part of a group that attracts little policy or media interest.

The estimates presented here are preliminary and experimental for two reasons:

1. The term vulnerability is used in many different ways, and more conceptual work is required to improve the definition and precision of the construct that is to be measured;
2. The data that we have are limited with important gaps in measurement that we point to below.

We are at an early stage of reviewing the literature and available data, so some of the gaps in the analysis thus far reflect limitations of what we have done rather than definitive gaps in measurement. However, by providing preliminary and experimental estimates we aim to highlight the known – and substantial - degree of vulnerability in childhood, and shine a light on some important gaps and limitations.

It is important to say that in some sense all children are vulnerable, if one considers vulnerability in relation to an issue like grooming for sexual abuse, or the possibility of the emergency of parental health issues undermining the parents’ capacity to provide adequate care. It is also important to say that in focusing on risk and vulnerability we do not intend to neglect assets and protective factors. It is a firm foundation of most social policy that risk and protective factors must be seen in combination. That will be an important refinement of future work.

We have identified an initial set of 32 groups of children that in public discourse and policy have come to be associated with forms of vulnerability or risk. (See Technical Paper 2 for more detail on the choice of approach and selection of groups.) We then tested the degree to which the number of children in each group can be assessed reliably from publicly available data. We wanted to know whether the relations between the groups are sufficiently understood that we can measure or estimate the numbers of children across groups, recognising that children may have multiple simultaneous “vulnerabilities.” We have also reviewed what is known about the potential life, health and wellbeing outcomes among children in different groups. Finally, we have reviewed qualitative literature on the views, perspectives and experiences of children in five vulnerable groups that we thought were under-researched.

This is a long term programme of work which publishes for the first time on July 4 with a first, very preliminary set of definitions and estimates of the nature and scale of childhood vulnerability. It provides a framework for our work to come. We hope that this work will in due course become a ‘living document’, publicly tracking the most up to date information on the scale of child vulnerability in England, and what we know of the outcomes and experiences of vulnerable groups.

Our aspiration is that by better defining and monitoring the questions of numbers and outcomes, supported by engagement with children and young people, we can ensure that children’s voices are better heard, risks are better addressed and opportunities built on. We hope that this work can support and stimulate local and national government, the voluntary sector and others in their identification of vulnerability and response to it.