Quirks in children’s needs census leaves service providers baffled

“There are three kinds of lies,” said the former prime minister,
Benjamin Disraeli. “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Certainly, the Department of Health’s statistics in the ‘Children
in Need in England’ census has left many local authorities
perplexed since their release last month.

The statistics, based on information collated by 144 local
authorities last October during the week-long census, show how many
under-17s local authorities support and care for, how much they
spend on them and how that compares with other authorities and
regional and England-wide averages.

Although most of the figures are within 5 per cent of the national
average, there are exceptions.

Some say these are due to an anomaly, a freak week. As one manager
says: “I could not understand why we were so different. I was
looking to see whether it was the week some of our care leavers
went on an exchange trip to Sweden.”

Accounting mistakes and variations in the way information is
gathered and presented explain some of the unusually high and low

On the face of it, nearly one in 10 of the 850 under-17s living in
the City of London were receiving assistance from social services
during census week.

But, as well as children receiving social worker visits, the
figures also included those receiving nursery services, disabled
children, asylum-seeking children not included in the target
population and teenagers arrested by police in the borough who did
not live there but needed social work support.

“It makes the statistics look rather skewed – it wasn’t the way we
collated them but rather the way they’ve been presented,” a City of
London spokesman says.

The statistics come with the proviso that variations in the data –
especially for expenditure – at local authority level “may result
from actual authority practiceÉbut in other cases may reflect
in part differences in reporting”. Taking them in isolation can
distort the picture.

The census shows that Darlington Council spent 85 per cent (joint
highest in the country) of its weekly children’s services budget on
caring for looked-after children, amounting to an average weekly
spend of £345 for each child in care, while spending only
£25 a child on supporting family and independent living.

However, Darlington’s own annual figure is 66 per cent, just 4 per
cent higher than the national average, based on the census figures.
The council believes the disparity between the two figures is
because it is a small authority and “one or two new cases in a week
can disrupt the whole profile”.

The census findings have also left Lincolnshire Council puzzled –
not because of a problem being identified but because they are
sceptical that they are performing as well as the results

It showed that during the census week, Lincolnshire social workers
spent on average 8.2 hours a child on preventive work and 3.9 hours
a child caring for looked-after children. These results were the
highest in the country – the national average was 1.7 and 3.2 hours
a child respectively – and suggest that the county either
prioritises individual support or that social workers can do this
because they have smaller case loads.

Although the census shows Lincolnshire has few children receiving
some form of social care service – 11 per 1,000 of its under-17
population, compared with a national average of 26 – Jennifer
Thornton, Lincolnshire’s children’s services manager, is surprised
at the result.

“It seems to paint a positive picture, but [the time spent with
individual children] seems extremely high compared with other
authorities and I am not aware we do anything differently,” she

Thornton says the figures could be the result of the authority
moving towards a more preventive approach, but it could also be an
anomaly “as it didn’t look like this last year”.

She adds: “It may mean that we are spending a lot of time with the
children we work with but it’s not the way it feels on the

Lincolnshire is to analyse the findings. “Either it is a
statistical blip or it is going to show us something very
interesting about the way we work,” Thornton says.

For some authorities, however, the statistics have highlighted
significant problems with working practices, social issues and, in
the case of nearby Suffolk, staff vacancies.

The East Anglian council was at the other end of the spectrum to
Lincolnshire in that its social workers spent 1.5 and 1.2 hours a
child each week caring for supported and looked-after children

“It is an indication of more social worker vacancies combined with
more children being looked after in Suffolk during that time,” says
John Gregg, assistant director for children’s services.

In October 2001, there were 58 social worker vacancies, while the
number of children on the child protection register had increased
by 23 per cent and looked-after children by 9 per cent in the
previous nine months.

Since then the council has cut the number of vacancies to 13.5 and
the number of children on the child protection register has reduced
to pre-2001 levels, enabling it to increase the time social workers
spend with children, Gregg says.

One of the most eye-catching statistics in the census is the London
Borough of Harrow which spends £1,955 on every looked-after
child each week. But Amy Weir, head of Harrow’s children and
families service, said the actual figure was about £700 and
had been distorted because of poor accounting and IT systems.

“It is still on the high side, but not as bad as this,” she

Despite this, Weir says the census has given important pointers for
improving services – placement spending is down a quarter this

“We noticed we were getting a sudden blip [in the number of
children taken into care] when health visitors were seeing children
at two years old. There was nothing before then, so it does make
you look at what is going on,” she says.

For Walsall and Gloucestershire Councils, the census confirmed a
major problem in the amount of money they spend on caring for
looked-after children. Last October, both were spending more than
80 per cent of their budgets on the looked-after children
population, due mainly to placing many children in care homes in
other counties.

The key to addressing this for both authorities was to increase
their spending on preventive services.
Gloucestershire has increased from £90 to £120 the sum it
spends per child on supporting children living with their families
or independently. This has resulted in its children in care
population dropping by 10 per cent.

Moira Swann, head of children’s services at Gloucestershire, said:
“Through analysis we realised that it wasn’t that we were bringing
in more children than other authorities, but that they were staying
longer. We identified that our assessment and care planning was not
as crisp,” Swann says.

Finally, in Walsall, the council has put more resources into
preventive services and realigned children’s services to focus on
client groups. Walsall placement resources manager David Bottomley
says: “I would like to see us achieve the national average [62 per
cent of children’s services expenditure on looked-after children]
within two years,” he says.

Children in Need in England at www.doh.gov.uk/cin/cin2001results.htm

Census findings:
– Darlington spent 85 per cent of its total children’s budget
on caring for looked-after children.
– 55 per cent of Lambeth’s children in need were being looked
– Lincolnshire social workers spent on average 8.2 hours a child
each week supporting children to live with their families and
– Suffolk social workers spent on average 1.2 hours a child each
week caring for looked-after children.
– The London Borough of Harrow spent £1,955 a week on every
looked-after child.
– Nearly one in 10 under-17s in the City of London were receiving
social services support.

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