30th April 2018

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

New research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) examines the state of the children’s social care system in England – bringing together the latest data on children in need, intervention rates, staffing levels and funding provision.

Key findings


Children’s social care – the latest trends

  • Since 2010, the proportion of acute interventions from social services has risen. Most notably, the number of children issued with Child Protection Plans (CPPs) increased by a quarter between 2010 and 2016.
  • The increase may be part of a deliberate response to high-profile reviews into child deaths resulting from abuse.
  • Cuts to early intervention services and rising deprivation may also play a role. With local authorities struggling to fund crucial early intervention services, social care interventions become reactive – with more children on Child Protection Plans as a result. 
  • Increases in more acute forms of intervention are also occurring in spite of half of children’s social workers reporting increases in thresholds for access to these services.
  • A large number of children’s services are rated poorly by Ofsted – over half of local authorities in all regions were rated ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’, with the exception of London.
  • Regions with the highest proportion of poorly rated local authorities were in the South West (81% rated Requires Improvement or Inadequate), the West Midlands (79%) and the North West (74%).

Funding and staffing

  • Analysis of expenditure trends suggests that local spending per child has fallen since 2010.  In order to maintain statutory provision, local authorities have cut back on early support services, and/or have used reserves.
  • The provision of social care staffing varies considerably, and in many areas is showing signs of strain. In London, workers’ caseloads are slightly lower – yet agency workers fill a high proportion of vacancies. In the Midlands and parts of the North, workers’ caseloads are higher, but vacancies and agency rates are lower.
  • A greater proportion of local authorities in regions with higher children’s social care caseloads have received poor Ofsted ratings.
  • The number of workers entering the children’s social care profession was substantially higher in 2017 compared to previous years – effective local recruitment and retention payment schemes may have contributed in some areas.
  • However, turnover rates are still very high, standing at 14% – around 50% higher than the teaching profession.
  • In particular, staff burn-out appears to be a significant problem – just under two-thirds of those leaving local authority employment in 2017 had worked for less than five years.

The future of the children’s social care system

  • With research indicating that child poverty is projected to increase, growing pressures on the care system are unlikely to decrease without measures that address the underlying connections between poverty and child protection risk.
  • In light of financial constraints, additional resources at a local level may also be necessary to prevent the outcomes of vulnerable children deteriorating.