Growth in social care referrals leading to no action slows following years of rapid rises

'Plateauing' of growth in assessments could be down to a number of factors but may suggest stabilisation of thresholds, says social work leader

Image of computer key marked 'assessment' (Credit: momius / Adobe Stock)
(Credit: momius / Adobe Stock)

The rapid rise over the last few years in social work assessments that lead to no action appears to be slowing, suggesting a stabilising of thresholds, a social work leader has suggested.

Characteristics of children in need figures published last week by the Department for Education show the proportion of referrals where a child was assessed but then found not to be in need continuing to climb – to 29.1% in 2018-19, compared with just 19% in 2012-13.

But the total rose by 0.6 percentage points, following a similar rise last year, compared with increases of several percentage points in the previous three years before that.

Claudia Megele, the national chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) network, said the latest rise could be due to a number of factors ranging from higher thresholds to better signposting and use of third-sector and community resources.

‘Stabilisation of thresholds’

“But the year-on-year increase is too small to suggest an increase in thresholds on a national basis; to the contrary, examining year-on-year increase over the past six years presents a plateauing trend line,” she said.

“[This] suggests a stabilisation of thresholds, while the earlier [and higher] year-on-year increases may be reflective of an increase in thresholds, which could be attributed to austerity and the increasing pressure on services and families over those years.”

The total number of referrals, 650,930, also fell for the first time since 2015-16, while the percentage of referrals that did not lead to an assessment continued a long-term decline and now stand at 8.1%.

Megele warned that it was important to consider a combination of relevant data points within the context of local and regional trends.

“For example, Local Authority Interactive Tool (LAIT) data shows significant variations in trends between different regions and local authorities with a number of regions and local authorities seeing a year-on-year reduction in referrals rates while others have seen increasing referrals,” Megele said.

“Keeping that in mind and looking at the recent CiN Census data, the decreasing number of referrals that result in no assessment could reflect an overall improvement in quality of referrals and better understanding of thresholds among multi-agency partners.”

Child protection enquiry rise

Section 47 enquiries, where children’s social care has reasonable cause to suspect a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, continued to rise, albeit at a slower rate than in recent years, moving from 198,090 in 2017-18 to 201,170 in the latest figures.

But the proportion of those enquiries that led to an initial child protection conference fell by one percentage point to 38.5% from the previous year, following a pattern of slow but steady reduction since 2012-13.

Megele added that the continuing fall in section 47 enquiries leading to an initial child protection conference needed to be considered within the context of each local authority and in conjunction with other data.

“It could be the result of a combination of factors ranging from a more diverse and sophisticated range of risk mitigation strategies, to better partnership working with children and families, to higher thresholds for child protection,” she said.

‘Need for caution’

But Gavin Moorghen, a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), added that the statistics should be treated with “great caution”.

“We need to not presume that the level of risk and need is reducing,” he said. “The increase in referrals and s47 enquiries not leading to action or initial conferences may be an indicator of thresholds being too high.”

Moorghen added that BASW “hears every day” from social workers under pressure to find reasons not to give a service which will cost money to their employer.

“What is clear from our members is that social workers are working in an environment of diminishing resources and funding, against a backdrop of increased poverty and homelessness,” Moorghen said.

“This is why BASW is calling on all political parties to prioritise social care in the upcoming election, to end the austerity in public services causing poverty and harm for vulnerable children and to invest in prevention, crisis care, early help and universal services.”

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