15th consecutive rise in care population in England over past year, DfE data shows

For second year in succession, increase largely driven by growing number of asylum-seeking children, the number of whom in unregulated settings has doubled over past two years, annual statistics reveal

Asylum-seeking child
Photo posed by model (Jan H Andersen/Adobe Stock)

The care population in England has grown for a 15th consecutive year, official data shows.

For the second year in succession, the increase has been driven almost entirely by increasing numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK, revealed the Department for Education’s (DfE) annual looked-after children’s statistics, issued last week.

There were 83,840 children in care as of 31 March 2023, up 2% on a year earlier, with unaccompanied children accounting for 1,620 of the 1,760 increase.

Unaccompanied young people made up 21% of the children taken into care in 2022-23 (7,090 out of 33,000), more than double their proportion in 2020-21 (10%).

Over that time, the number of other children taken into care each year has remained relatively static.

Looked-after children: key statistics

  • Number: 83,840 children were looked after in England as of 31 March 2023, up 2% on a year earlier (82,080).
  • Trend: this is the 15th consecutive annual rise in the care population.
  • Legal status: while most children are under a care order, this proportion fell from 78% to 76% over the past year, with a rise, from 17% to 19%, in those in voluntary arrangements under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
  • Placement type: most children are in foster placements, but their share has fallen from 70% to 68% over the past year, with a rise, from 16% to 17%, in those in secure or open children’s homes or semi-independent settings.
  • Unregulated settings: the number of children in independent or semi-independent settings, which were then unregulated, rose by 20% in the year to March 2023, from 7,500 to 8,980.
  • Unaccompanied children: their number grew by 29% in 2022-23, from 5,670 to 7,290. They also made up half of those in unregulated settings as of March 2023.
  • Placement stability: 69% of children had one placement during 2022-23, the same proportion as in 2021-22, with ten per cent experiencing three or more placements, as in 2021-22.
  • Placement distance: 21% of children were placed more than 20 miles from home as of March 2023, the same proportion as a year earlier.
  • Adoption and special guardianship: the number of children adopted from care in 2022-23 fell by 2% on the previous year, to 2,960. There was also a 2% fall in the number who left under a special guardianship order, which was 3,840.
  • Care leavers: 29% of 18-year-olds and 38% of 19- to 21-year-old care leavers were not in education, employment or training as of March 2023, similarly to a year earlier.

Doubling in number of asylum-seeking children in unregulated settings

The data also illustrated the substantial change in provision for unaccompanied young people, with a 110% rise in the number placed in unregulated settings from 2021-23.

The number in independent or semi-independent settings more than doubled, from 2,120 to 4,450, outstripping, proportionately, the 76% increase in the number of unaccompanied children – 4,150 to 7,290 – over the same period.

This meant 61% of asylum-seeking children were in unregulated settings as of March 2023, up from 51% two years previously.

With councils having been prohibited from placing under-16s in unregulated settings since September 2021, the proportion of 16- and 17-year-old asylum seekers in these placements was even higher, at 71% in March 2023, up from 56% in 2021.

Regulation of semi-independent provision

Since October 2023, councils have been banned from using independent settings altogether, and from placing young people in semi-independent placements whose providers were not registered under Ofsted’s new supported accommodation regime.

The DfE introduced national standards and registration for supported accommodation to address longstanding concerns about the quality and safety of provision for looked-after children in unregulated settings.

However, the DfE’s figures show that, in the two years prior to the introduction of registration, use of unregulated placements rose by 48%, from 6,080 to 8,980.

The majority of this increase (2,330 out of 2,910) involved provision for asylum-seeking children who, as of March 2023, accounted for half of unregulated placements.

Split views on reforms

Charities have criticised the supported accommodation reforms as inadequate and discriminatory because they do not require services to offer ‘care’ to 16- and 17-year-olds, as children’s homes must do.

Also, supported accommodation services face a lighter-touch regime than children’s homes, as they are regulated at provider level, rather than as individual settings, and face inspections every three years, rather than annually.

However, council leaders have warned that the reform will exacerbate the existing shortage of placements for looked-after children.

Not only must they find alternatives to independent settings, who accommodated 2,300 young people as of March 2023, but they also face a loss of some of the 6,680 semi-independent placements they were commissioning at the same time.

Providers of these plan to register 81% of the beds they currently provide with Ofsted, according to a report from the County Councils Network (CCN) and London Innovation and Improvement Alliance (LIIA), published in July this year.

Meanwhile, the number of mainstream fostering households has fallen in each of the past two years, reducing further the supply of placements.

Hotel placements ruled unlawful

The inability of councils, particularly port authorities like Kent, to accommodate increasing numbers of asylum-seeking children led the Home Office to start housing them in hotels in July 2021, in what was designed to be a temporary measure.

In December 2021, it made its national transfer scheme (NTS) mandatory, requiring social services authorities with relatively few asylum-seeking children as a share of population to take in young people from areas with a higher share.

But despite a rise in the number of NTS transfers since, the Home Office has continued to use hotels, a practice that has sparked significant safeguarding concerns and whose routine use the High Court ruled unlawful in a judgment in July 2023.

To reduce and, ultimately, end hotel use, the government has offered authorities £6,000 to take in children from hotels or directly from Kent within five days of a notification to do so.

However, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has warned that the NTS “no longer functions”, including because of inadequate funding and a national shortage of placements.

‘Higher levels of need and risk’

The figures showing the latest rise in the care population came in the wake of news that the number of child protection enquiries hit a record high in 2022-23.

The ADCS attributed the latter to an erosion of preventive service provision over the past decade, and repeated this message following the publication of the looked-after children’s statistics.

John Pearce, ADCS president, 2023-24

John Pearce, ADCS president, 2023-24

“Higher levels of need and risk are now being seen in children’s social care and families continue to present later, with complex, multifaceted needs which are more acute,” said ADCS president John Pearce.

“Day in, day out, we are working hard to support children and families, but our services are stretched to beyond breaking point.”

He added: “Only through long-term national investment in early help can we ensure that children are not taken into care when they could have stayed with their family had their needs been met earlier.”

Social care reform agenda

The DfE’s children’s social care reform agenda includes plans to improve the quantity and effectiveness of early help, to keep more children with their families, through the creation of so-called ‘family help services’.

However, these are currently being tested, with any rollout – and associated investment – coming on stream from 2025 at the earliest.

The DfE is also aiming to boost the sufficiency of care placements, by providing councils with £259m from 2022-25 to expand children’s home capacity and £27m from 2023-25 to recruit more foster carers.

Over the longer-term, the DfE plans to introduce regional care co-operatives (RCCs) to take responsibility from individual councils for both commissioning and delivering placements.

It belives these will boost sufficiency and quality of placements, including by providing councils with the economies of scale to exercise more clout with providers; however, council leaders are sceptical about RCCs’ potential to achieve this.

DfE response to care data

In response to the looked-after children data, a DfE spokesperson said: “Every child deserves a safe and secure home, no matter their background, and local authorities have a responsibility to provide appropriate support for all children in their care.

“We are supporting them by improving the recruitment of foster carers and increasing the number of places available locally in both secure and open children’s homes.

“The placement of under-16s in unregulated provision has been banned since September 2021, and this year we have ended its use for 16- and 17-year-olds.”

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