Friday, 5 May 2017

It's only statistics

According to a report in Children and Young People Now, figures published by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) show that the total number of care applications in England in the financial year 2016/17 was 14,544, a 13.8 % increase on the previous record year.

The Cafcass website provides these figures dating back to the financial year 2012-13 as follows:

Financial Year
Number of applications

So, the bald fact is that there has been a 31% increase in care applications since 2012-13. It doesn’t take much thought to appreciate how much extra work and extra resources is occasioned by an increase of that sort. Initiating care proceedings is an expensive and time consuming business, involving enquiries, reports, assessments, legal briefings and, of course, court hearings. 

An increase of this size fits apiece with all the other statistics about child protection in England.

Just to remind myself of those other figures, I thought I’d arrange them in a single table.  The result is even more scary than I expected.

Number of Looked-after children [1]
Child Protection Plans [2]
Initial Child Protection Conferences [2]
Section 47 Enquiries [2]
% age increase, 2009-10 to 2015-16

And it gets even scarier when you begin to think about the work and resources that go into providing the services under each of the four column headings.

The number of children in care (looked-after children) has gone up modestly over the period. But the amount of time and work that has to be put into looking after a child in care is huge. So, a 9% increase is 9% of a lot. It represents a great deal of social worker, residential social worker, foster parent, manager and administrator time. And, as we all know looking after children properly is not a cheap activity. The National Audit Office [3] found that in 2012-13, the average annual amount spent on the care of an individual child in England was in the range of £29,000 to £33,000 for a foster placement; and in the range of £131,000 to £135,000 for a residential care placement.

The number of Child Protection Plans made has gone up by nearly one third over the period. Often a Child Protection Plan involves less work than a care order, but it is a heavy commitment. A social worker has to be allocated to the case and has to visit the child and family regularly. There have to be meetings with other agencies and review child protection conferences must be held. The social worker has to be managed and supported – both costly overheads. I have never seen an estimate of how much it costs to administer a Child Protection Plan, but I can tell you it won’t be cheap.

The number of Initial Child Conferences has gone up by two thirds. An Initial Child Protection Conference follows the investigation of allegations of abuse or neglect. It should be attended by representatives of all the main agencies – children’s services, police, health, education, probation, mental health, voluntary sector etc. Typically, a conference of this type lasts between one and two hours. Professionals have to travel to attend the conference and leave other tasks unattended while they participate in the meeting. The conference requires a person to chair it, who has to be a professional very experienced in child protection work. Organising a conference is a time-consuming activity. Conferences have to be minuted by a specialist note taker and the minutes have to be typed up and circulated. All of that takes up resources. Again, I don’t think anybody has worked out how much an average Initial Child Protection Conference costs. But you don’t need to be an accountant to see that the costs of each conference will be considerable.

The number of Section 47 Enquiries has nearly doubled. Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 requires English local authorities to carry out enquiries where it is believed that a child is at risk of significant harm. At least one social worker will have to be allocated to carry out each enquiry, but often more than one person is required. The family will have to be visited, the child seen and spoken to, checks made with all relevant agencies and key professionals, such as doctors or teachers, consulted. Often the police will carry out a parallel investigation into whether or not a crime, such as child neglect or an offence against the person, has been committed. So, there needs to be liaison between the police officer and the social worker. Government guidance requires that strategy meetings are held to co-ordinate activities in each case. Evidence has to be gathered and assessed and recorded. Reports have to be written and circulated. Decisions have to be taken about what to do next. Again, all that takes time and resources. Nearly double the number of Section 47 Enquiries is likely to mean big increases in the number of social workers required. More social workers mean that more managers and more administrators are required to support them.

My scary little table seems to imply scarily big requirements for more resources. So, what has happened to resources during the period 2010 – 2016? Well, it’s not easy to come up with a clear and comprehensive account of what has happened to resources, because the way in which spending is recorded is pretty dense. I’m not sure that even a super accountant could come up with a definitive answer, not least because it is always difficult in organisations with large overheads to decide how much of the overhead should be allocated to different parts of the service.

So, I am just going to stick to the big picture in the hope that it gives a reasonable ballpark guestimate of what is actually going on.

Section 251 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 requires local authorities in England to submit statements about their planned and actual expenditure on education and children’s social care. It is pretty difficult to interpret the Section 251 returns, but in July 2016 a report [4] was produced that goes some way towards making sense of trends in expenditure. On page 21 of the report a graph shows that total spending on children’s services (at 2015 prices) between 2010-11 and 2013-14 across all 152 English local councils fell by 9%. In the absence of more up-to-date information, we can only assume that since then the situation has deteriorated, as Government cuts have become more pronounced.

The scariest and most alarming part of all is that we have big and costly increases in demand for all sorts of child protection services and we have less and less resources to meet them. That trend is set to continue. You don’t have to be a financial genius to see where that is taking us. And it isn’t a nice place!


[1] Department for Education. Children looked after in England (including adoption) year ending 31 March 2016 SFR 41/2016, 29 September 2016.

[2] Department for Education. Characteristics of children in need: 2015 to 2016, 3 November 2016.

[3] National Audit Office / Department for Education. Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed on 26 November 2014

[4] Children’s services: spending and delivery. Research report by Aldaba and the Early Intervention Foundation. Department for Education, July 2016.