Children’s services

Summarising workforce shortages, increasing demands and an increasingly complex caseload.

Key figures

  • £11.1 billion – the amount spent by local authorities on children’s social care in 2021/22, up 41.6% since 2009/10.
  • 66.2% – the real-terms spending increase on children’s residential care between 2015/16 and 2021/22.
  • 650,270 – the number of referrals to children’s social care in 2021/22, up 8.8% since 2020/21 and up 1.1% since 2019/20.
  • 82,170 – the number of children in care in 2021/22, up 27% since 2009/10.
  • 17.1% – of children starting an episode of care were unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
  • 31,643 – children and family social workers in post (full-time equivalent: FTE) in 2022/23, down 2.7% on 2021/22 and the first fall in the data series.

Rising costs

Local authorities have overspent on children’s social care every year since 2014, squeezing the budgets of other neighbourhood and children’s services. Spending is being driven up by the rising costs of residential care, while at the same time, local authorities are becoming over reliant on expensive agency staff due to the first decline in the numbers of children’s social workers in a decade. Cases have become more complex and the government’s current vision for the sector lacks the funding or policy changes needed to tackle the scale of problems in children’s social care.

Councils spent £11.1bn on children’s social care in 2012/22, an increase of 41.6% in real terms since 2009/10. Councils have routinely overspent on their children’s social care budgets for the last 9 years. By 2021/22, 46% had overspent by at least 20% and 10% of local authorities by at least 40%. As a result, acute social care has been prioritised at the expense of other children’s services. Between 2009/10 and 2021/22, spending on children in care rose by 49.4%, while spending on children’s centres and on children under five fell by 73.4%.

Increasing demand

Children’s residential care is a major factor driving cost pressures and accounts for over a third of spending on children in care. Between 2015/16 and 2021/22 the amount spent on residential care has increased by 66.2%, including a 14.6% increase in 2021/22 alone. Supply constraints and higher demand, exacerbated by the government withdrawing unregulated accommodation for under 16 year olds in 2021, are pushing up costs. The situation is so dire that the Department for Education has categorised the risk of market failure in children in care placements as “critical to very likely” during 2023/24.

In 2021/22 the number of child protection plans rose for the first time in four years while the numbers of children in care saw a 2.7% increase on 2020. However, there was a 34.2% increase in unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in care in 2021/22. These children now account for 17% of children in care, the highest level on record. Many have suffered complex trauma and need additional support from local authorities.

Workforce shortages

In 2022/23 the number of children’s social workers fell for the first time in a decade, down 2.7%, due to an increase in staff leaving and a decline in numbers joining the profession. In that one year 17.1% of the workforce left, while those joining dropped by 12.5% - both record figures. This has led to an increasing reliance on agency workers with 17.6% of all social workers in 2022/23 agency staff. High workloads and falling levels of pay are behind the high turnover, but this also affects children by inhibiting their relationships with their social workers and further disrupting their lives.

The independent review of children’s social care called for radical change to make it more responsive and effective. The government’s response, however, has been slow and on a much smaller scale, providing only 20% of the funding recommended.