By the time they reach 16, as many as one in seven children will have had an assessment or received support from a social worker under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. This is usually because of a concern about their development or safety or because they are disabled. That’s four children in an average classroom. On any given day in England, the figure is over 400,000 children. Yet, in research little is known about these children, why they receive support, how it is delivered and what it achieves. Without this knowledge, research efforts to understand how best to support these children will falter. Our research, Understanding service provision for Children in Need in England sought to make a dent in this gap and accelerate work to improve how we support these children.
Working with four partner local authorities, we delved into nearly 100 case files, talked to 11 parents and 29 social workers and examined administrative data to understand what support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 entails and who the children receiving support are. We were also lucky to speak to a group of practitioners in other local authorities who guided us, challenged us and helped us make sense of what we were finding throughout the project. Time limited the scope of our work, so we could only work with four authorities and could not speak to children. It is important to highlight then, that our work is not representative of what happens around the country, but rather a window into this important area of social care and social work practice.
What we found was a huge variety in practice. There were many reasons for offering support and the type and duration of this support was wide ranging. This included some children who received low level and infrequent visits from social workers all the way to children and families where there were serious safeguarding concerns, acute mental health problems or frequent domestic violence incidents. The purpose of a child in need plan is therefore wide ranging and at times, unclear.
For many reasons, timely and adequate support was not always available to families from a range of services. But where it was, this was provided by a wide range of professionals and organisations working from within and outside of children’s services, in a more or less coordinated fashion. This points to the complexity of delivering effective support in this area.
We also saw that children and families in receipt of support were a heterogenous group that was not always representative of the local population; some racial backgrounds were over or under represented in the population of children receiving support. Teenagers were also far more likely to be receiving help than much younger children.
This variation makes it hard to understand whether children who need support the most are getting it and whether it helps families keep their children safe and well. In addition, there were important gaps in data and there is an absence of national reporting, further hampering local authorities’ ability to understand local needs and plan services adequately.
Researchers are known – and much maligned, understandably! – for concluding by saying we need more research. But what our work really highlighted is how little we know and understand about children with a child in need plan and the support they require. It shows how far we are from being able to ensure these children receive effective and timely help.
In a world of little evidence however, children continue to receive support and professionals continue to deliver this. Our work points to a need for greater clarity on the ways and circumstances in which Children in Need plans are used, so that we can begin to improve their effectiveness. Clarity is essential for these children and their families as well as for all the professionals delivering support. Where this is realised and it is recorded in strong case management systems, we can start to build the scaffold of a system which learns about itself and uses this to improve how it delivers services to those who need it most.
We will be unpacking our Children in Need research further in our lunchtime webinar on 11 July. You can sign up for the webinar here and find out more about all our upcoming webinars on our research as part of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care here.