By Paul Bywaters
The latest DfE statistics on looked-after children (LAC) in England highlight the continuing rise in the number of LAC – up another 3% this year – accompanied for the first time in five years by a rise in the proportion of children and young people looked after.
There is a continuing disconnect at the heart of government policy which these figures reflect and which is receiving insufficient attention. At the same time as the numbers coming into care increase, with all the financial and human costs involved, we continue to see policies that increase the numbers of families living in poverty with consequences in terms of access to housing, food and other necessities of life. Why is there so little attention being paid by government to what is happening and at the very least some research being commissioned into whether there is a relationship between these issues?
Over recent years funding has been made available by the DfE to research innovations in practice methodologies and system change.
But there has been a puzzling lack of curiosity about investigating the range of factors that may be impacting on why children become looked after and what might be needed to support their safe care at home.
In 2010, when the coalition government came into power, fewer than 65,000 children were being looked after; now that number has increased to more than 72,000. This increase has been accompanied by a reduction in overall spending on children’s services. How is the consequent reduction in early help and family support impacting upon these numbers? Why is this also not a focus of government research?
Moreover, there has been little attention to improving the data systems we do have in order to support policy and practice improvement. England has a reliable and consistent pattern of data collection – and for that we should be grateful. It is important that this continues. But having spent the past five years researching the looked-after children data across the UK, I have a number of concerns.
No data about parents
The first and most important is that the DfE only collects data about children, not their parents. How can we run an effective and efficient system without knowing the most basic details about parents’ ages, their marital status, or their health or educational backgrounds? To prevent children needing to come into care we have to understand who parents are and what they are up against. And so it is incomprehensible to me that no data is collected systematically about parents’ circumstances: we know nothing about their income, housing or debt levels, for example, even though research suggests that these are key social determinants of good enough childhoods.
Second, are we making the most of the data we do collect? The LAC data returns include children’s postcodes which could easily be converted into a measure of neighbourhood deprivation. Analysing this relationship would show just how unequal children’s chances are of being in care according to the deprivation level of the neighbourhoods in which they are being brought up.
Similarly, no data is produced showing the looked after rates per 10,000 children across the different ethnic categories that are used. The commentary to the statistics says that Black and Mixed heritage children have higher rates than White children, and Asian children ‘slightly’ lower rates. But recent research by Coventry University found that Asian rates are around a third those of White children, hardly a slight difference. And, if you take deprivation into account, White children have higher, not lower, rates than those for Black children in the most deprived areas where the majority of Black children live. And there are big differences between the rates for African and Caribbean children.
Is data accurate?
Third, is the data completely accurate? My main concerns here are about the data on disability. If you analyse the data by local authority, the proportions of children recorded as being disabled varies hugely. And it varies systematically and rather unexpectedly with deprivation levels. Low deprivation local authorities report more disabled children than high deprivation local authorities, which seems unlikely or – at least – requires understanding. Disability is another key source of pressure on families, so we need to get this right in order to make appropriate targeted provision.
Overall, the LAC statistics seem to reflect a world view in which parents’ lives are invisible, although we know that less well off families have faced a triple whammy of falling real incomes whether from work or benefits, greater insecurity of income, and cuts to much needed services.
The data mask a contradictory system that cuts hardship payments, disability and housing benefits, increases sanctions and decants families away from their support systems while racking up increasing costs on looking after children in care.
Only my personal opinion, of course. But we spend £9 billion on children’s services so we ought to know whether it’s money well spent. Above all, it cannot be right for the state to intervene in so many families without having the data needed to know what we are doing, to whom, under what circumstances and at what cost.
Paul Bywaters is emeritus professor of social work at Coventry University