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Research reveals trends in child social care demand and outcomes

An analysis of more than three million social care assessments in England has uncovered trends in demand and links to outcomes for vulnerable children which, researchers say, could help councils to better understand local population challenges and adapt service provision accordingly.

The research team from Kingston University and the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) say the study findings highlight the need for more government investment in prevention services and for national and local policymakers to adopt social policies that improve the financial circumstances of disadvantaged families.

Changes in support

The two-year study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, examined the relationship between assessed risk factors, social care intervention and educational outcomes, offering an evidence-based picture of how the support for children and families has changed over time and the impact this has had on children’s outcomes.

Social workers record any combination of 40 common risk factors when they carry out a child and family assessment. However, little has been known about what combinations are most prevalent for which children, and how children’s characteristics and needs affect what happens after an assessment is completed.

The study analysed 3.6 million social care assessments and linked these to a range of outcomes including child protection and care interventions, re-referrals to social care, school exclusions and educational attainment.

The researchers identified 12 categories of demand representing the most common combinations of risk factors assessed by social workers. Single-factor domestic abuse and violence was found to be the most prevalent category of demand, accounting for a fifth of all cases. A combination of parental mental health and substance misuse was the second most prevalent form of demand.

Other trends to emerge include a significant rise in children assessed as having multiple risk factors, particularly mental health problems for children and adults, and extra-familial harm. Average rates of re-referral were 30 per cent over 12 months and 59 per cent over a six-year period, although rates for complex issues tended to be higher.

Kingston University professor of social work, Rick Hood says the study represents the largest and most comprehensive analysis of data on social work assessments carried out so far in England. He adds: “We hope our findings will help local authorities understand demand and match services to what children and families need in order to thrive and meet their potential. There is an absence of sufficient resources available to address the variety of demand meaning many children will not receive the right kind of help early enough and end up returning into the system later in life.”

Different outcomes

Further analysis explored how outcomes differed based on children’s characteristics, their category of need, and the type of provision they received. For example, children in the “risks outside the home” category were more likely to be older, male and/or black, and accommodated in care and less likely to have a child protection plan than the average child assessed by children’s social care. Meanwhile, children at risk of domestic violence and abuse were more likely to have a child protection plan if assessed with other risk factors.

The report sets out a series of recommendations for reforming the children’s social care system, the management of services including evaluation and improvement, and how to improve frontline practice. It also highlights action for local and national policymakers (see box).

As part of the project local authorities are being encouraged to undertake their own demand analysis, using tools available on the project website to inform strategic decisions.

Action for policymakers
  • An increased role for, and investment in, youth services and child and adolescent mental health services to prevent a rise in young people with complex needs.
  • Better training for practitioners that acknowledges complex links between social and economic circumstances and racial and ethnic disparities in assessment.
  • Enacting social policies that improve financial and socio-economic circumstances of families.

Source:Studying the outcomes of different types of demand in children’s social care, Kingston University and NCB, January 2024