The government's social care review: children need action now

Thursday 02 February 2023
Gratitude Week_children_smiling_to_camera_Action_for_Children

The government’s plans to create a children's social care system fit for the future is an important moment. But children and families in the system need help now, too

The government pledged to conduct a review of the children’s social care system ahead of the 2019 General Election. That review concluded in May 2022 and this week the government has responded by setting out a plan for reform – Stable homes built on love.

That strategy is being consulted on now and Action for Children will be drawing on our expertise of supporting 40,000 children in the care system to help shape the government’s plans. These are our first impressions.

What does the Social Care Review mean?

A summary if you only have 30 seconds…

The direction of the proposed reforms is positive:

  • The government has committed to many of the proposals set out in the Independent Review. It has recognised the need to create a system that is more focused on early intervention – through new ‘family help teams’ that combine lots of different specialists into one service.
  • The implementation strategy also highlights the need to radically overhaul how homes for children in care are planned and paid for. Crucially, the government knows that will need more money. But, there are huge outstanding issues, not least whether enough is being done to keep the current system functioning in an acceptable way.

A summary if you have a few minutes…

As you’d expect from a 220 page strategy – there’s more to it.

Here are our four key takeaways.

1.The social care system is essential but it is not working well

It is good news that this new strategy has been created. Children’s social care is a crucial public service that is often overlooked. Around 1 in 4 children will rely on children’s social care at some point in their lives, but at the moment too many don’t get the help they need. And, for too many, the service they do get is atrocious.

The realities for children and families who receive children’s social care services are sobering. The need for services is rising, while local authorities are overspending and increasingly struggling to cope

Stable home, built on love

2. Yes – we need to do more early intervention 

The big message of the Independent Review was that children’s social care needs to be much more focused on preventing entries into care in the first place. And we agree. Action for Children helped 140,000 people through our family support and children’s centres last year. These services are crucial in keeping children safe from harm and ensuring families stay together. At the moment, not enough people get that help. Our research has shown around 60,000 children a year are offered no help by children’s services only to be re-referred within 12 months.

Read the full research report

3. Lots of problems come back to a lack of adequate care placements

There are so many failures in the children’s social care system it can feel impossible to do anything to turn it around. One of the issues is how homes for children in care are planned, funded and delivered. The average cost of providing a home for a child in care is now £200,000 a year. That money is often badly spent. Last year only just over half of children were offered a home in their local area, close to their family, friends and community; and there was a 23% increase in children living in ‘care-less’ unregulated settings.

The government has responded by proposing a transition from local authority-led arrangements, to a regional model that would see areas working together to plan, commission and deliver placements. We welcome the proposal to test the model, but, to work, the government needs to get a range of things right. And its success depends on other proposals, such as increasing foster carer recruitment, and boosting rates of kinship care.

4. Support for care leavers must include children returning home

The Independent Review shone a light on the disgraceful outcomes for care experienced people from life expectancy to educational outcomes. The government is absolutely right that support for care leavers needs to improve. However, the strategy overlooks the most common route out of the care system – returning home (known as ‘reunification’). Much greater attention must be paid to this as an area of social care policy and practice, to address high rates of care re-entry following attempted reunification.

Two big questions...

5. What about the children's care system now?

As positive as many of the proposed reforms are, the huge elephant in the room is whether the government is doing enough for children and families in the system now. That includes moving quickly on issues of funding and recruiting social workers. As well as continuous intervention to reduce the number of children inappropriately placed in unregulated settings, and provide the help young people need to flourish when they leave care.

6. What about the General Election?

A second unanswered question is what politics will mean for these reforms. The government has proposed a mixture of short term ambitions, ‘pathfinders’ for major reforms, and longer term ambitions. In all, that means reforms that could take 10 years or more. One major challenge to delivery will be what political parties commit to in the General Election campaign.

Over the coming months we’ll be working to shape the final strategy. But crucially we’ll also make sure that both this government – and the next one – take action to improve the children’s social care system.