Four things you need to know about the UK care system

Monday 17 July 2023
Teenage boy sitting on bed looking worried and talking to sister.

The recent BBC documentary ‘Joe Swash: Teens in Care’, which aired in the UK on 11th July 2023 shone a light on the importance of the care system, and the need to address the challenges currently facing it.

The documentary spotlights Rachel, who was supported by Action for Children when she left care and now campaigns for other care experienced young people. In light of this, here are four things you should know about the UK care system, from how many extra foster families are needed in the UK to the percentage of siblings separated in care.

1. The number of children in care is currently at a record high

As of 31st March 2022, there were 82,170 children and young people living in care in England alone. In Wales, 7,080 and in Northern Ireland, 3,624. Between 2020 and 2021 there were 13,255 looked after children in Scotland.

2022 saw the highest recorded number of children in care in Northern Ireland since the introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995

Children’s Social Care Statistics for Northern Ireland 2021/22

Children and young people go into care for a multitude of reasons. Abuse and neglect are the most common reasons for care entry; however, poverty often plays a role. A peer-reviewed study published by The Lancet in June 2022 highlighted that ‘child poverty has emerged as a key risk factor for children entering care’. This makes the threat of the cost-of-living crisis and the devastating impact that this is having on families even more pertinent.

2. Children leaving care are more likely to experience poor outcomes

In 2022, 38% of 19-21 year old care leavers were not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET), compared to just 11% of their peers.

At Action for Children, we seek to rectify this imbalance of opportunity between care leavers and children without care experience. One way that we do this is through our Inspire IT programme. In partnership with DELL Technologies, we help to connect thousands of young people with the technology and training they need to access education and the resources they need to learn and grow.

Teen male student Working At a desk on a laptop in library

3. Approximately 37% of looked after children with siblings are separated when placed in care

Increasing demand for care placements is putting pressure on the care system. The result is a devastating struggle to keep siblings together.

An estimated 37% of children with a sibling in England – that is 20,000 children – are separated from a sibling when placed in care

The Children’s Commissioner, January 2023

4. The UK needs an additional 7,200 foster families to help children in care

With the increasing number of children entering the care system, it is no surprise that there is rising demand for foster families in the UK. Currently, ‘nearly 70,000 children are living with almost 55,000 foster families’.

In 2022, just over four fifths, or 83 per cent, of the children in care in Northern Ireland were in foster placements. In England, this number was 70%.

Wales had the highest proportion of children in care without foster families in March 2022, with only 69% of children in care living with foster families.

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Through our 447 local services at Action for Children, we supported 760,000 children, young people, and families across the UK in 2022. By drawing on our 154 years of experience, we will continue to look out for the UK’s most vulnerable children and young people.


Frequently asked questions

Children’s social care and services are funded through national grants to local authorities. Most of this funding is not ring-fenced for children however, and local authorities (LA) can decide how they divide their spending between children and adults.

According to The Fostering Network, there were 57,540 children living with foster families in England; 3,008 in Northern Ireland; 4,155 in Scotland; and 4,915 in Wales in 2022.

In fostering, the largest proportion of referrals are for children aged 11-15 (52.63%), followed by 5-10 (27.58%), 0-4 (12.52%), and 16-18 (7.27%). Year on year, there has been a decrease in the 11-15 age group and an increase in the 5-10 and 0-4 age group.

To become a foster carer in England, you must:

  • Have the right to work in the UK
  • Be able to care for a child or young person, often on a full-time basis
  • Be at least 18 (though most providers will require you to be at least 21)

Additionally, while you do not need to own your home, you usually need to have a spare room.

Learn more about fostering with Action for Children