Do children’s services reflect, reinforce or reduce social inequalities?

Paul Bywaters is leading new research into why children from poor neighbourhoods are more likely to face child protection interventions

Photo: Purple Sherbet Photography/Flickr (posed by model)

by Paul Bywaters

Official statistics in the four UK countries appear to show the chance of a child being looked-after is almost double the rate in Scotland than it is in England.

In Scotland there were around four children being looked-after for each one on the child protection (CP) register, while in England there were only about one and a half times more looked-after children (LAC) than on CP plans. But which country is getting it right?

These are huge differences with profound consequences for children and parents, for policy and practice and for public spending. We need to know if these are real differences in practice, why they occur and how to judge which system is better.

The Nuffield Foundation has awarded a consortium of universities over £500,000 to investigate inequalities in LAC and CP rates in the four UK countries.

Two-year project

The Nuffield Foundation has awarded a consortium of universities over £500,000 to investigate inequalities in LAC and CP rates in the four UK countries.

The two-year project, starting in April, will examine inequalities in intervention rates within each country, before comparing rates between the countries. Case studies will help make sense of how the differences occur and what they mean for frontline practice.

The research team will have to solve the problems of different legal and policy frameworks and different approaches to collecting and analysing statistics in each of the countries.

This in itself should be a valuable step towards creating common data sets, so that future comparisons can be more easily made. New methods of analysis should also mean that policy developers and managers can work from better evidence.

The project builds on Coventry University’s research last year, which studied inequalities in CP and LAC rates in England.


By examining rates in small neighbourhoods, each of which has a deprivation score attached to it, it showed intervention rates in the most deprived 10% of small neighbourhoods in England were around 12 times higher than in the least deprived 10%.

The study also showed that inequalities between the broad ethnic groups are affected by the levels of deprivation in the areas where the different groups live. In the most deprived 20% of neighbourhoods, the intervention rates for white children were up to six times greater than for Asian children, and substantially higher than for black children.

The research concluded that unless you take deprivation and ethnicity into account, it is impossible to make sense of CP and LAC rates at the level of whole local authorities. Some councils can appear to have low overall rates, but once controlled for deprivation and ethnicity are intervening at a much higher rate than might be expected – and vice versa.

So, in order to be certain that the apparent inequalities between Scotland and England (and the other UK countries) are real, the new research needs to compare like with like and take deprivation, ethnicity and any other significant factors into account.

Big questions

If the inequalities are confirmed, they will open up very big questions. For example, do higher rates or lower rates mean that childhoods are better? How do we measure the success and cost-effectiveness of child welfare systems? Should the inequalities relating to deprivation and ethnicity be reduced and, if so, how?

The focus of attention on children’s services, for obvious reasons, tends to be on high profile individual cases or systemic problems of sexual abuse and exploitation. But it’s vital we also focus on the impact of the whole system on children’s and families’ lives.

Health and education services place reducing inequality at the heart of policy and practice. The research team believe it’s time for children’s services to take a similar approach.

Understanding patterns of CP and LAC interventions will also yield significant pointers to future policy, in particular for preventing the severe childhood experiences that require extreme interventions.

It’s easy to take for granted the relationship between poverty and the families social workers work with, but it is time to re-examine the link and think about whether children’s services reflect, reinforce or reduce social inequalities.

It is time to face up to whether the very large inequalities in intervention rates between neighbourhoods, local authorities and countries are in children’s best interests.

Paul Bywaters is a professor of social work at Coventry University

More from Community Care

One Response to Do children’s services reflect, reinforce or reduce social inequalities?

  1. Philip Measures February 4, 2015 at 11:37 am #

    The published national Indices of Multiple Deprivation also highlight that the more ‘deprived’ an Area is the greater are all manner of inequalities – work, health etc. £500,000 could be better spent than ‘discovering’ the obvious.