10s of 1000s of children could avoid council care by 2025, says new report

Tens of thousands of young people could live safely with their families and communities rather than in the care of local authorities if councils lead the charge on delivering a reshaped care system over the coming years, a report suggests.

  • The County Councils Network (CCN) represents 23 county councils and 13 county unitary authorities across England.

With councils under significant pressure in delivering children’s social care – with many overspending each year – a report released today by the CCN, Association of County Chief Executives, and Newton sets out a new way to improve outcomes for young people and make these vital services sustainable.

Analysis in The Future of Children’s Social Care shows that under current trends the number of children in care could rise to 95,000 by the end of 2025 with county leaders warning that the ‘status quo is no longer an option’. Based on case reviews with practitioners, the report finds up to 39% of children could have avoided coming into care had the system had worked differently and there was more support in place for families on the verge of crisis.

The report proposes a reshaped, family-focused way of delivering support, which aims to both reduce the number of children being placed in care and increase the number of children safely returning to their families and communities from care. But to enable this, the report outlines that sustainable local and national funding is vital to allow investment in services. Based on case reviews with practitioners, the report finds that for up to 34% of children in care, opportunities to support a return to family or community are not being properly explored.

Last year, the government announced a review of children’s social care amidst rising costs for local authorities. Ahead of the review’s publication, today’s report concludes that local authorities should remain at the centre of a reshaped care system, because they are best placed to effectively co-ordinate change with public sector partners and across other service areas, such as adult social care.

If the blueprint, called an ‘optimised delivery model’, is adopted across England by 2025, it could result in up to 31,000 young people could live safely with their families and communities rather than in the care of local authorities, based on projected figures of children in care by the end of 2025. This would mean the number of children in care could decrease to 64,000 by 2025, lower than last year’s all-time high of 80,020 and significantly less than the highest projection of 95,000 if nothing is done.

For those currently in local authority care, up to 4,400 fewer young people would be housed inappropriately in residential care, and instead would be living in more family-orientated homes, such as with foster carers: a 41% reduction.

An average of 50% of social workers’ time is spent in meetings, completing forms, and IT tasks, the report finds. If the system worked better, it would allow them to spend a further 25% working directly supporting families, more than an hour extra every week for each child currently in care and on a child protection plan in England.

Without changes to the system, projected expenditure on children in care is set to be £2.1bn higher in 2025 compared to 2020. Analysis conducted in the report shows that delivering the model could mitigate up to 95% of that forecast growth in spend over coming years. This is as a result of fewer children being in care, more children in care living in family settings, such as fostering, and less reliance on expensive residential care.

To enable the new model, significant support is required from central government, including the certainty of a long-term funding settlement for children’s services, because addressing projected spend does not eradicate the underlying funding gap facing councils. CCN argues that the government should use its March Spring Forecast to inject substantive resources into the system.

The report recommends £205m a year is spent by councils in England on ‘edge of care’ services which would support those children and young people either at risk of coming into care or those who could return to their families and community, where it is safe to do so.

The report also recommends local and national investment to transform the care market, including a national focus on recruiting and supporting foster carers, similar to the government’s National Adoption Strategy, so there are more so there are more opportunities to place children in family-settings instead of costly residential care, when it is safe to do so.

The report examined individuals currently in care and found that in 54% of those cases local authorities had initially requested a different setting, such as a foster carer, but there was a lack of suitable alternatives.

Local authorities and public sector partners would also adopt a different approach to measuring risk – once which considers the later-life impacts of children being separated from their families against the short-term risks they face. Based on conversations with children and young people, the report also calls for a local and national focus on better collecting, recording, and measuring what most matters to them, such as, their contact time with siblings.