Special report: The state of children’s services

Recent reports into the state of children’s services have highlighted the loss of early help and preventive services, and how this is contributing to more children in need falling through our supposed safety net, BASW has warned.

In July, the Children’s Commissioner for England published for the first time a report into the scale of vulnerability among children in England. The Local Government Association provided analysis into underfunding of children’s services which predicted of a £2 billion gap by 2020. Action for Children published a report into the ‘revolving door’ into children’s social care of children being referred, assessed, not meeting high thresholds, only to be left with no support.

“Their findings do nothing to allay widely held concerns that children’s services are under unsustainable pressure, and that far too many children and families are left without the support they need,” said Ruth Allen CEO of BASW.

“What they all highlight is the loss of early help and preventive services, and how this is contributing to more children in need falling through our supposed safety net - and potentially going ‘off the radar’ all together,” she added.


The analysis on the scale of vulnerability among children in England by children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, found that almost 700,000 children are living in families that have vulnerabilities and 580,000 children – equivalent to the population of Manchester – are so vulnerable that the state has to step in and provide direct care, intervention or support.

The report looked at the scale of vulnerability for the first time although many of the figures published in the report are likely to underestimate the actual number of children living vulnerable lives: many children are ‘invisible’ because they are not reported to services, or because of worrying gaps in available data.

The report found:

  • More than 15,000 children living with an adult receiving alcohol treatment and nearly 12,000 living with an adult in drug treatment.
  • 160,000 children have been temporarily or permanently excluded from school in England.
  • 800,000 children aged 5 to 17 suffer from mental health problems.
  • 200,000 children are judged by their local authority to have experienced trauma or abuse.
  • An estimated 46,000 children are thought to be part of a gang.
  • 119,000 children are homeless or living in insecure or unstable housing.
  • 170,000 children are estimated to do unpaid caring for family members, of which many have not been identified and offered support.
  • 1,200 children are newly identified victims of modern slavery per year.

Pre-Section 17

These figures are only the tip of the iceberg and children’s commissioner Anne Longfield has pledged to use her unique statutory powers to request data from local authorities, government departments and others to fill in these gaps over the next year. The report is the first stage in a long-term programme of work which the children’s commissioner will carry out on vulnerability and starts by tackling the confusion about what counts as vulnerability. The commissioner’s office will now consult broadly on these definitions and develop a framework that can be used widely.

At the moment different criteria are often applied to the term “vulnerable” by different agencies involved with children and sometimes the same criteria are used but the term “vulnerable” isn’t. Clarifying this unhelpful situation is not just a matter of efficiency and common sense but vital to reaching vulnerable children.

Anne Longfield said: “It is shocking that half a million children – a number equivalent to the entire population of Manchester – need direct intervention or care from the state because they are living vulnerable lives. On top of that there are many hundreds of thousands of other children growing up in potentially high-risk situations.

“Yet even more shocking is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher. The truth is nobody knows the exact number of vulnerable children. We can trace in minute detail the academic progress of a child from 4 to 18 and beyond, but when it comes to describing and assessing the scale of negative factors in a child’s life which will hamper their progress, we are floundering.

“What we do know is that even these numbers are unacceptably high. Our ambition as a nation should be for all our children to live happy and healthy lives. This report shows that millions are not doing so – and that has to change,” she added.

The report concluded that there is very little evidence on the long term outcomes in adulthood of children in many vulnerable groups as many of these groups are absent or poorly measured in national studies. Particular gaps were apparent in the searches completed in this review for the following groups:

  • Children not meeting the threshold for social worker intervention (Pre-section 17);
  • Undocumented children and children without legal identity/regular immigration status;
  • Children whose parents may have limited parenting capacity.

Anne Longfield pledged to carry out additional reviews on the topics of vulnerability in infancy, children missing from mainstream education, mental health and Pre-section 17 as initial areas of concern identified by this review.


In the second report by the Local Government Association, council leaders warned that three quarters of children’s services in England are over-spending on their children’s services budgets by more than half a billion pounds.

The LGA analysis reported that councils have faced an unprecedented surge in demand for children’s social care support over recent years, which is showing little sign of abating. More than 170,000 children were subject to child protection enquiries in 2015/16, compared to 71,800 in 2005/06 – a 140 per cent increase in just 10 years.

The number of children on child protection plans increased by almost 24,000 over the same period, while ongoing cuts to local authority budgets are forcing many areas to make extremely difficult decisions about how to allocate increasingly scarce resources.

As a result, in 2015/16 councils surpassed their children’s social care budgets by £605 million in order to protect children at immediate risk of harm.

“The LGA is warning that the pressures facing children’s services are rapidly becoming unsustainable, with a £2 billion funding gap expected by 2020. Unless urgent action is taken to reduce the number of families relying on the children’s social care system for support, this gap will continue to grow,” the report warned.

The report highlighted how a combination of the huge financial pressures councils are under, along with the spike in demand for child protection support, mean that the limited money councils have available is increasingly being taken up with the provision of urgent help for children and families already at crisis point, leaving very little to invest in early intervention.

Indeed, the Early Intervention Grant has been cut by almost £500 million since 2013, and is projected to drop by a further £183 million by 2020 - representing a 40 per cent reduction by the end of the decade.

Cllr Richard Watts, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “With councils facing a £2 billion funding gap for children’s services in just three years’ time it is more important than ever that the Government prioritises spending in this area.

“There is no question that early intervention can help to limit the need for children to enter the social care system, lay the groundwork for improved performance at school and even help to ease future pressure on adult social care by reducing the pressure on services for vulnerable adults.

“However, cuts to the Early Intervention Grant have exacerbated a difficult situation where councils cannot afford to withdraw services for children in immediate need of protection to invest in early help instead.

“The reality is that services for the care and protection of vulnerable children are now, in many areas, being pushed to breaking point. Government must commit to the life chances of children and young people by acting urgently to address the growing funding gap,” he added.

Revolving door

The third report into children’s services was the Revolving Door report by children’s charity Action for Children which warned that some of the most vulnerable children in society are not getting the help and support they need.

The charity’s research found that out of the total number of children whose case is closed after assessment, only 1 in 4 children can be confirmed as referred to early help services. The charity estimates that there are 140,000 children who do not meet the threshold for statutory support and are not referred to early help after their case is closed.

Action for Children warns that these children have needs that are too great for schools, health or other universal services to meet on their own, but they are not eligible for support from statutory social care services. They have been referred to children’s social care services because of concerns around domestic violence, parental mental health, neglect and physical abuse.

Some children then may be stuck in a ‘revolving door’ into children’s services, repeatedly referred and assessed but not receiving help. This risks children undergoing “prolonged periods of unmet needs and recurrent episodes of abuse, neglect [or] maltreatment” before they receive help, the charity warns.

“If assessment does not lead to appropriate support for a child, then we miss an opportunity to act early,” says the report.

“We know that there are high numbers of children experiencing neglect whose needs do not meet the threshold for statutory support and that neglect can have a cumulative impact on children’s mental and physical health,” said the report. “We cannot afford to “only focus on those cases reaching the threshold for statutory intervention” but must take a wider view and respond to children below the threshold as well,” it added.

The report highlights that addressing the financial pressures on local authorities and strengthening the statutory framework for early help would go a long way to meeting the needs of these children. It should be clear who should do what, and when, to make sure children get the right help, at the right time, it adds.

Action for Children is calling on the government to strengthen the statutory framework for early help provision and urgently address the funding crisis for children’s social care.

It also urges government to ensure that the proposed Mental Health reforms and Domestic Violence Bill include a focus on parents and addressing the impact of these issues on their children. In addition, the Children and Social Work Act Regulations should ensure that local Safeguarding Arrangements address early help or low level needs as well as child protection and that there is provision for enforcement of the duty to cooperate. It should be clear that adult services are ‘Relevant Agencies’ for safeguarding children and that all types of schools, nurseries and colleges are ‘Relevant Agencies’ and should be front and centre in the development of the new local arrangements.

BASW’s CEO Ruth Allen said that children referred to social services because of perceived risks may be bounced around between service providers or receive no help at all if they do not meet statutory thresholds for help which vary widely.

Perception of social work

The British Association of Social Workers and National Children’s Bureau are currently working with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children to survey social workers’ views on the degree of variation and ask the question – why should child and family welfare support be a thing of location lottery?

Ms Allen warns that for most families, the prospect of social services being involved with their children for welfare reasons “is too often imbued with fear”.

“People do not – perhaps cannot – approach social services as they would their GP if they are not coping. It is associated with stigma, intrusion and the heavy hand of state interference in family life and parental rights.

“This should not be the primary perception of helpful child and family social work - but culture, press and pressurised service systems continue to drive this. Yes, social workers will always need to take tough decisions and protect children from harm. But that is only an aspect of what should be primarily a preventive and enabling social work public service,” she added.

She warns that changing public perceptions and ensuring in practice that children’s social care and social work can be beneficial, compassionate and helpful first and foremost is made increasingly difficult when early help services, such as Sure Starts and Family Centres, are not available. These, alongside community and voluntary sector groups and organisations, are vital threads in the fabric of child welfare, adds Ms Allen.

“Of course, there is plenty of great practice in the field by dedicated and creative social workers. There are good models of services offered by local authorities and other organisations attempting to reverse the decline in early help.

“We must learn from them, from social work practice and from what families tell us works. In the fabric of child and family support, a stitch in time saves lives,” she concluded.

Action for Children: Revolving Door

Children’s commissioner report on vulnerability

LGA analysis



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