Children’s social care system likened to Jenga tower held together with Sellotape

Children’s social care system likened to Jenga tower held together with Sellotape

Children’s services often intervene with vulnerable families too late, the independent review into children’s social care has stated.

The government’s main focus should be on supporting the resources of families and the wider community to keep children safe as close to a family environment as is possible. While decisive action still needs to be taken where children require protection, too often intervention is not forthcoming until problems have already escalated, thus severing children’s relationships and setting them on a worse trajectory.

Chair of the review Josh MacAlister said: “This Case for Change sets out the urgent need for a new approach to children’s social care in England. Our children’s social care system is a 30-year-old tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape: simultaneously rigid and yet shaky. There have been many reviews and attempts at reform since the landmark introduction of the 1989 Children Act and though each has ushered incremental progress, we are now left with a high stack of legislation, systems, structures, and services that with their sheer complicatedness make it hard to imagine something different, let alone address foundational problems.”

The independent review of children’s social care, which was announced in January and started work on 1 March, is a once in a generation opportunity to transform the children’s social care system and improve the lives of children and their families. This review is a chance to look afresh at the system and ask how we can ensure that children grow up in loving, stable, safe families and, where that is not possible, care provides the same foundations.

The Case for Change highlights that there are currently more children within the system. The figures at 2019-20 compared to a decade earlier in 2009-10 are as follows:

  • There were 642,980 referrals in 2019-20 – up 7% from 2009-10
  • There were 389,260 children in need in 2019-20 – up 4% on the previous decade
  • Section 47 enquiries rose by a massive 129% to 201,000 in 2019-20
  • The 51,510 child protection plans were 32% more than in 2009-10
  • The number of looked after children increased by 24% to 80,080 in 2019-20.

There are also increasing number of older children in care with the number of looked after young people aged 16 or over rising by 39% from 10 years earlier and the number of children in need aged 16 and over going up by 36%.

However, in 2012-13, the total spending on children’s services was £10.1 billion, made up of £6.6bn statutory and £3.5bn non-statutory spending. In 2019-20, the total spending was £2.3 bn non-statutory and £8.2 bn statutory totally £10.5 billion.

“The experiences and outcomes of children and families tell us that children’s social care needs to change. We should not casually accept that a small number of children and families have such poor life experiences and outcomes. This is not a criticism of the many dedicated professionals who work to improve the lives of children and families, nor is it a criticism of any individual government - but it is a call to action. Improving children’s social care will take us a long way to solving some of the knottiest problems facing society - improving children’s quality of life, improving the productivity of the economy, and truly leveling up,” said the report.

The system is currently under pressure as more families are being investigated, more children are in care and costs are spiralling as money is increasingly spent on costly crisis intervention. There are also “significant and concerning inequalities” - with deprivation, ethnicity and prior care experience all associated with increased likelihood of state intervention.

Currently, in the majority of cases, families become involved with children’s social care because they are parenting in conditions of adversity, rather than because they have caused or are likely to cause significant harm to their children, the review highlights. But When the state steps in, too often the focus is on assessment and investigation and not providing support.

In the year ending March 2020, there were just under 135,000 investigations where a child was suspected of suffering significant harm yet did not result in a child protection plan - three times as many as just 10 years ago.

Families told the review that they asked social care for support, but their experience of being assessed added stress to an already difficult situation without meaningful support being offered. This is, in part, because there are fewer local services to support families as spending on non-statutory children’s services fell by 35% in real terms between 2012/13-2019/20. There are also pressures on wider support such as safe accommodation for victims of domestic abuse, mental health and substance misuse services.

There must be a clearer definition of what ‘family help’ is, and the review suggests a definition to start the conversation, part of which is as follows: “Family Help should be high quality, evidence-led and delivered by skilled professionals who are able to engage families and build trusting and supportive relationships with them. In delivering this support, Family Help should recognise that all families need help at times, and that does not mean there is a child protection concern. It should be able to confidently hold risk whilst also being equipped to recognise child protection issues.”

The review praises social workers for making “complex and challenging decisions” but warns that too often their work is dominated by process over direct work with families. Decision-making and risk assessment are too often underpinned by a lack of knowledge while information sharing problems remain across agencies despite decades of reviews calling for greater sharing.

The review also flags up that accountability for teenagers at risk of harm is severely lacking. Teenagers are the fastest growing group in both child protection and care and many experience serious harm or die. There was a 60% increase in the number of 10-19 year olds being treated for knife wounds between 2012/13 and 2017/18.

“Government departments and safeguarding partners have failed to have an effective response to the risks that teenagers face. Different parts of the children’s social care, police, education, justice and health systems are responding differently to the same teenagers. Accountability for keeping these teenagers safe is lacking,” said the report.

When children have met the threshold of child protection and are at risk of serious harm and it is clear that support will not lead to enough change, decisive action should be taken in providing effective support for families. Court proceedings are by their nature adversarial and have high human and economic costs - more work is needed to promote solution finding and non-adversarial approaches before children and families are taken to court. Shared and supported care options could help keep families safely together without the need for breaking family ties.

When children cannot remain with their birth parents, stable alternative homes should be sought.. Kinship arrangements and adoption can offer children permanence outside of care. The government approach to adoption shows the positive impact of focused action. A similar level of focus on kinship is needed to promote and support its use and ensure that more children grow up with carers who already know and love them.

More support must be given to parents whose children are taken into care as repeat care proceedings make up 20% of cases in the public care system, yet intensive support for parents at risk of repeat proceedings is patchy. Better practice and alternative approaches are needed where children return home after a period of being in care to stop cycles of re-entry and trauma - nearly 30% of children who left care in 2006/07 returned to care within five years. Care too often weakens rather than strengthens relationships, the review warns, highlighting that many care leavers report having small support networks. Too often children are moved far from where they have grown up, are separated from their siblings, are forced to move schools, and have a revolving door of social workers.

“We are failing to build lifelong loving relationships around these children,” said the report.

The review also slams the “placement market” as broken and urges a pragmatic re-think with all options considered. The review is working alongside the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to look at this issue. Care for vulnerable children who need secure accommodation reflects short term siloed thinking across government. Urgent action is needed given long standing issues and growing pressures on secure accommodation, although more homes are not a long term answer. There are particular issues for children in youth custody and government must step up its action to deliver on existing commitments.

The state also needs to be a “more pushy parent” when it comes to getting children in care the support they need whether that is educational or mental health support.

Josh MacAlister

Josh MacAlister is clear that there is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more. Rather, the choice will be whether this investment is spent on reform which achieves long term sustainability and better outcomes or propping up an increasingly expensive and inadequate existing system. The collective costs of poor outcomes for children in contact with social care should be considered when the case for investment is made.

He is equally unwavering when he points out that the system continues to be bureaucratic and risk averse. Despite some action locally and nationally, the underlying behaviours identified by Munro remain. One in three of all social workers in children’s services do not work directly with children or families which “is a staggering misuse of the greatest asset that children’s social care has - its social workers”.

There is more to do to recruit, retain and support social care staff, including a high quality social work workforce. Burnout is high, supervision is often infrequent and inadequate, the use of agency staff is costly, and leadership turnover is too high (ADCS, 2021). Children’s social care has been subject to numerous reviews and strategies in recent decades, yet actually achieving change that improves the lives of children and families has been stubbornly difficult.

“’Top down’ approaches to reform focused on statutory duties and entitlements are well intentioned but can have negative and unintended consequences, adding to the bureaucracy and inflexibility of the system. “Bottom up” approaches to develop and spread good practice have played an important role, but there is a limit to the progress that can be made without changes to the fundamental drivers and forces in the system,” said the report.

“To achieve progress we suggest more systemic change will be needed, rather than making tweaks or piling more bricks onto an already wobbly and fragile Jenga tower,” the report concludes.

To support the work outlined in the Case for Change, the review team held visits, conversations, surveys and heard from more than 700 people with lived experience of children’s social care and also spoke with around 300 people working with children and families. A Call for Advice asked about how the review should work and the big questions we should focus on and the Call for Evidence, covered a wide range of topics. There was also input from the Experts by Experience Board, Design Group and Evidence Groups - although groups were brought together purposely to reflect a wide range of views and so the end position is ultimately that of the review.

The review asks for feedback on their interpretation of the evidence and have also asked important questions where the team would like ideas, views and further evidence. Responses will be used to help shape the future work of the review.

The main way to provide feedback on the Case for Change will be through our online form which you can access here. This will be open until 13th August. As always, at any point you can email the review team at

The next phase of the review will explore in more depth the issues highlighted in this document, including focused work in a small number of local areas to understand the perspectives of children, families and those working on the front line.

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