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Vulnerable children and social care in England: A review of the evidence

Trends in prevalence and overview of provision

  • According to the latest official statistics there are 389,430 children in need (CIN) in England. These are children deemed unlikely to achieve reasonable health and development without the provision of services, including those with a disability.
  • Since 2010 at least, there has been a rise in the numbers of children in need issued with Child Protection Plans and council care orders. This has been partially attributed to a deliberate response by social care authorities to high-profile serious case reviews into child deaths resulting from abuse. Other factors, including cuts to early intervention (EI) services and deprivation, may also be contributing to a rise in acute need.
  • The increase in these more acute forms of monitoring and intervention is occurring in spite of staff-reported increases in thresholds for access to services.
  • Over half of LAs in all regions except London were rated Requires Improvement or Inadequate by Ofsted, according to the latest data.

Funding and staffing issues

  • In order to maintain statutory services, local authorities have balanced a fall in local spending power since 2010 with cuts to early support services combined with the use of budget reserves.
  • Social care staffing is showing signs of strain, and different parts of the country have adapted differently to the challenging context. In London, caseloads are slightly lower than average, but are managed with heavy reliance on agency workers to fill high rates of vacancies. In the Midlands and parts of the North, caseloads are higher than average, but vacancies and agency worker rates are lower. Burn-out appears to be a significant problem, with 63 per cent of leavers in 2017 having worked less than five years.
  • Social worker change has been linked to a loss of trust among children in need.
  • More positively, the number of starters was substantially higher in 2017 compared to previous years. In some cases, this may be the result of local recruitment and retention schemes.
  • Regions with higher caseloads have a higher proportion of local authorities with poor Ofsted ratings.

Educational and long-term outcomes for children in contact with social services

  • The effects of the adverse childhood experiences that lead to social care intervention stretch well into adulthood, and include mental health difficulties and crime.
  • Despite efforts to prioritise looked after children in schools, through virtual school heads and the LAC pupil premium, their experiences are still characterised by instability and poor outcomes.
  • Within this concerning picture, there is hope that longer-term stable care placements can result in better outcomes, including a lower chance of permanent exclusion from school.


  • With child poverty projected to increase, the strains on the system are unlikely to decrease without significant additional spending.
  • Research suggests that the most affected parts of the country are those that have already borne the brunt of cuts to preventive services. If the risk of further deteriorating child outcomes is to be averted, services will need to be sufficiently resourced to tackle the underlying connections between poverty and child protection risk.