Postcode lottery in child in need support uncovered by Children’s Commissioner

Analysis of government data finds huge variations in provision of child in need plans, as watchdog urges DfE to introduce national thresholds and guidance

Rachel de Souza
Children's Commissioner for England Rachel de Souza (credit: Office of the Children's Commissioner)

National thresholds and stronger guidance are needed to address a postcode lottery in support for children in need, the Children’s Commissioner for England has warned.

Despite the focus of current government reforms on intervening early to help children stay with their families, the changes are insufficiently focused on those on child in need (CIN) plans, said the rights watchdog.

Rachel de Souza delivered the messages in a report issued today analysing Department for Education data – some of it previously unpublished – on children on CIN plans.

Postcode lottery 

This identified huge variations between councils in the likelihood of children having no further action taken following a social care referral, proportions of children in need on CIN plans, the number of plans per head of population and their duration.

Also, most councils did not set minimum requirements for children on CIN plans to be visited by social workers or other lead practitioners, the research found.

The commissioner said the findings reflected a lack of guidance and robust data in relation to children on CIN plans, compared with those on child protection (CP) plans or who were looked after.

“It is vital that we get things right for children on child in need plans,” said de Souza. “Good support will not only help to make their lives happier and healthier but can also prevent things escalating to the point where a child might need to be taken into care.”

Who are children in need?

Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, a child in need is one who is unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of development without intervention, whose development is likely to be significantly impaired without intervention, or who is disabled.

The term ‘child in need’ encompasses all those supported by children’s social care, including children in care, those on child protection plans, care leavers, disabled children receiving statutory services and children on CIN plans.

As set out in Working Together to Safeguard Children, councils should develop a multi-agency CIN plan whenever they decide to provide child in need services following an assessment under section 17.

As of 31 March 2023, there were 403,090 children in need in England, with an estimated 106,000 on CIN plans, 50,780 on child protection plans and 83,840 looked after.

About the research

The commissioner’s report drew on:

  • Data from 145 of the then 152 councils from the DfE’s 2022-23 child in need census, including on the number and rates of child in need plans.
  • Unpublished 2021-22 DfE data from 144 authorities on the characteristics of children in need, linked to statistics on the same children’s education, including attendance and special education needs provision.
  • Analysis of CIN policies and procedures from 125 councils.

The research found that, in 2021-22, the proportion of children’s social care referrals that resulted in no further action (NFA) ranged from 1.6% to 63% between authorities, with an average of 32%.

Such divergence was “surprising”, said the report, and it was not clear how far this was down to different thresholds for action, differences in referral practice by partner agencies or variations in early help provision to refer families onto in NFA cases.

Wide variations in CIN plan rates

While 0.9% of children were on a CIN plan nationally as of March 2023, this ranged from 0.3% to 3.16% in different areas.

And though 27.5% of children in need were on a CIN plan as of March 2022 nationally, the rate varied from 3.6% to 70% between individual councils. Children not on CIN plans include those on CP plans, looked-after children, care leavers, adopted children and those in the assessment process.

“This suggests that, unless the levels of underlying need are indeed this variable, local areas have substantially different thresholds for section 17 support,” said the report.

Another area of large variation was the average duration of plans, which ranged from 35 to 388 days in 2021-22.

Guidance on social work visits lacking

Analysis of council procedures found that 74% did not specify how often social workers or lead professionals should visit children on CIN plans, with most of these authorities stating that this should be as often as the plan says.

For those that specified a frequency, the biggest group stipulated visits at least every four weeks (13%), with the others ranging from twice a month to once every three months.

There was more consistency in procedures in relation to frequencies of plan reviews, with 66% requiring this at least every three months and a further 18% specifying reviews every two months.

Variations linked to lack of CIN guidance

The commissioner’s report linked the huge variations in support for children in need to a lack of national guidance on CIN provision.

While Working Together for Safeguarding Children sets out detailed guidance on carrying out child protection enquiries, holding conferences, drawing up CP plans and reviewing them, including with timescales, there is much less prescription in relation to the CIN process.

The only guidance in relation to CIN plans states that they should set “clear measurable outcomes for the child and expectations for the parents”, reflecting the family’s strengths and weaknesses, and acknowledging extra-familial factors undermining parenting capacity or the child’s safety.

Councils have ‘latitude’ in determining thresholds

The statutory guidance “leaves a great deal of latitude for determining the threshold” of support – as set out in councils’ threshold documents, said the commissioner’s report.

“It is no wonder that the level of intervention that children receive differs greatly as there is no national guidance that sets out the thresholds of need that should prompt intervention or that define how often children should receive help or how frequently it is reviewed,” it added.

The commissioner’s report acknowledged that the DfE’s Stable Homes, Built on Love reforms were focused on providing improved support to children and families earlier on, to prevent their needs from escalating.

This would be delivered by a new family help service, merging existing targeted early help and child in need provision, a model that is currently being tested in three local areas.

However, the strategy contains no specific measures on CIN plans, and the commissioner’s office said it was “concerned that these reforms are not informed by a robust understanding of how child in need plans serve as a distinct intervention for families”.

National guidance and thresholds urged

The report called for the government to set national guidance defining automatic triggers for referral to social care, thresholds that children and families must meet to receive CIN support and expectations for frequencies of visits to children and plan reviews.

The DfE should also include a measure for assessing the progress of children on CIN plans in the children’s social care dashboard it will publish later this year to track the performance of the sector, it added.

The only indicators relating to CIN in the proposed dashboard are the rates of children in need in each area and the attendance and educational attainment of those on CIN plans. However, the department has acknowledged that the proposed measures have “limitations” in measuring outcomes, given they are based on available data.

Among the commissioner’s other recommendations was the proposed introduction of a statutory duty on councils to deliver early help, to ensure that families denied CIN services are supported to prevent their needs from escalating.

DfE defends Working Together guidance

Despite the commissioner’s report highlighting Working Together’s alleged deficiencies in relation to CIN plans, the DfE’s response focused squarely on the statutory guidance.

“In December 2023, we published revised multi-agency statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children, with a focus on strengthening multi-agency working across the whole system of help, support and protection,” said the spokesperson.

“This guidance makes clear that all local authorities must set out clear arrangements for how cases will be managed once a child is referred into local authority children’s social care as part of their local protocols.”

The spokesperson also pointed to the £6.48m that the department had provided to help local areas implement the changes to Working Together.

Directors stress need for local flexibility

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services welcomed the report’s call to “put early help on a statutory footing with dedicated, ring fenced funding, and calls for better national data”.

However, ADCS president John Pearce urged caution in relation to its recommendations for “consistency and blanket guidance” because of the need for services to be “tailored to individual needs”.

He said councils’ service offer would “look markedly different from place to place” because of their local population, geography, context and finances – particularly in the “14th year of austerity”.

“This flexibility is particularly important here given the broad range of needs of the children we work with in this space, including homeless young people, families with no recourse to public funds and children with disabilities,” he added.

“It is important that social workers can use their professional judgement when assessing the level of support required and the frequency of visits.”

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