Summarising the effects of limited capacity, increasing cost pressures and a high staff turnover on children's services.
Impact of Covid
The pandemic exacerbated existing long-term problems facing children’s services and made it more difficult for local authorities to ensure children’s safety. Limited capacity in the residential sector led to higher costs and although referrals to social services fell during the pandemic, the number of children in care remained at an all-time high as fewer were discharged from care. It’s too early to know if this drop in referrals or the extent of additional harm suffered by children during the pandemic will show up in future, though there have been some notably tragic cases. Several recent reviews have called for radical overhauls of the system to improve the quality of children’s social care.
Increase in spending
Local authorities spent £9.8bn on children’s social care in 2020/21, a 34.9% rise in real terms compared to 2009/10. This sustained increase in spending continues to squeeze other areas, with spending on wider services for young people cut by 60% during the same period. In 2020/21 and 2021/22, local authorities spent £820.6m on COVID-related social care costs. Almost half (48%) of this in 2021/22 was accounted for by the increased cost of residential care placements for children, in part following the 2021 ban on the use of unregulated accommodation. The independent sector now accounts for 83% of all residential care provision. Higher profits by private residential providers have added to local authority costs significantly, a trend also identified by the Competition and Markets Authority.
Fall in referrals
Referrals to children’s social care fell by approximately 45,000 in 2020/21, the lowest number since 2012/13. This was in part because children had less contact with public services. Schools, for example, referred 30.6% fewer cases in 2020/21 than in 2019/20. Despite a fall in referrals and in serious incidents notices, however, social workers have continued to support a similar volume of ‘looked-after-children’ as prior to the pandemic.
The number of children’s and family social workers continued to grow with a 2% increase in 2021/22 and the proportion of vacancies remained steady. Yet, underneath this, the increase in staff turnover in 2021/22 saw almost 5,000 (FTE) social work staff leave, equating to 15.4% of the total workforce. As of 2021/22, staff with less than 5 years of experience make up 60% of the labour force with 31% having less than 2 years of experience. Such a high proportion of relatively inexperienced and early career staff could impact on the quality of children’s social care services.
The government-commissioned independent review of children’s social care has called for a radical change in services to make them more responsive, respective and effective. This includes changes to working practices and processes, as well as reform of the children’s social care market. Local authorities would need more funding to enact all these recommendations.