JimKenThis week saw the publication of the latest statistics on children in need and children subject to child protection plans in England. The report – Characteristics of Children in Need in England, 2012-13 – provides information on referrals and assessments carried out by children’s social care services, on children who are assessed as being  in need, and on children who were the subject of a child protection plan.
These are important statistics. They provide an indication of the way children’s services’ workload is developing, and raise key questions about what is going on, across the system. They are also used by government in their wider assessment of the pressures on, and performance of, local authorities.  
Some of the main messages highlighted in the report are that:

  • Referrals to children’s social services have fallen by 1.9% to just under 600,000, and are at their lowest level since 2009-10
  • • Fewer initial assessments were completed during the year (down by 2.2%) but there have been increases in the numbers of core (full) assessments completed, which rose by 5.4%
  • • There have also been increases in the number of Section 47 Enquiries made, which rose by 2% (These Enquiries are carried out, following an initial assessment, if there is cause to suspect a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm)
  • More children were assessed as being in need, at 31 March – up by 2.5% to 378,600
  • 52,700 children became the subject of a child protection plan – up by 1.1%
  • There were 60,100 initial child protection conferences – up from 56,200 in 2012
  • Neglect was the most common initial category of abuse under which children became the subject of a plan, in 41.0% of cases. Emotional abuse was next (31.7%). Physical abuse accounted for only 11.7%.

These seem to me to be a complex set of statistics to interpret in terms of what they tell us about the pressure on local authorities. Basically, they suggest that the input (referrals) to the system is falling, but activity on some more complex aspects of care is rising.

The statistics also beg questions, briefly noted in the report, about whether it’s the increase in more complex cases that is resulting in, for example, more core assessments, and child protection conferences, or whether that rise is being driven by increasingly cautious practice.

On an even wider front, the figures need to be seen alongside the growing numbers of children becoming looked after – highlighted in other statistics – and the accelerating pace of placements for permanence, including adoption.

They also raise issues about other aspects of the system, on which it would be interesting to see debate, such, as the relationship between the children in need figures (rising – albeit slowly), and referrals (falling).

And they point to wider factors on which it would be useful to have more information, such as the changing characteristics, of the overall children’s population, and the extent to which they would be expected to be influencing the work of children’s services departments.

One insight into that issue can be seen in the enormous variation in the rate of children in need (per 10,000 children) across the country. Regional rates run from less than 244, to over 478, and local authority rates run from 154.4 (Wokingham) to 785.3 (Middlesbrough).

A couple of final comments…

The overwhelming focus of child protection activity on neglect and emotional abuse is again confirmed in these statistics, but I still think it’s not a point that registers fully with the general public.

And, somewhat, buried in the statistics, is some brief information on the trialling of the new approach to assessment which the government sanctioned in the wake of the Munro Review. 

Under that arrangement, 7 local authorities were allowed to carry out a more flexible approach to assessment. Specifically, they were given permission to carry out a continuous assessment (rather than the initial and core assessments prescribed in statutory guidance) and were allowed to remove the statutory timescales for completing assessments.

The median number of working days for carrying out these new-style assessments was 26 days (from figures from 6 authorities). This compares to a median number of days for the current core assessments of 31 days, and for initial assessments of 7 days.

So, another statistic that raises important issues for further debate and discussion.