Understanding Residential Care

Eve Smyth
Quantitative Research Associate

30 June 2022

Although the poor outcomes for children in residential care are widely recognised, far less is known about who these children are and what their experiences are of the care system. If we want to improve these children’s outcomes, we need to have a better understanding of these young people’s lives, so we can develop interventions and support that meets their needs. For this reason, as part of our work to support the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, we carried out research looking at the characteristics, care journeys, and outcomes of children living in children’s homes (henceforth referred to as ‘residential care’). 

Firstly, who are the children in residential care? Our results indicate high levels of need and vulnerability among this group of children. A significant proportion (15%) of children living in residential care had entered care primarily due to a disability, illness or intrinsic condition, compared to just 3% in the general care population. What is more, over 90% of children living in residential care who had a school record had, at some point, been assessed as having Special Educational Needs (SEN). This is higher than within the wider population of children in care (73%), and the general population (37%). The most common type of SEN for children living in residential care was Social, Emotional and Mental Health Difficulties (SEMH). We also found that boys, white children and older children are more likely to be placed in residential care than in other types of placements. 

What are their experiences of the care system? Our findings revealed some stark patterns. Our interpretation of the data is that residential care is often used as a last resort; usually after one or more foster or kinship care placements have ended. Indeed, over 60% of children in residential care had experienced another placement before they entered residential care. Where children had entered care before age 11 and moved into residential care as a teenager, they had been through an average of nearly five placements before arriving in residential care. Overall, children with experience of residential care experienced far more placements during their care journey than other young people in care (6.7 versus 3). We also found that these children experienced instability in other areas of their lives, including for example in education. Instability is therefore a key feature of these young people’s lives and is cause of great concern.

Lastly, what are their outcomes? Children with experience of residential care have poorer outcomes than their peers who have experienced other forms of care – this is an established finding within the literature. However, our results  also shone a light on just how different the outcomes are among the cohort of children in residential care. We found that two groups of children had particularly poor outcomes on almost every measure. The first was children who had entered care aged 10 or younger and went onto experience residential care at some point during their teenage years, and the second was children who had entered care between the ages of 11-15. Both groups were found to have particularly unstable care journeys, especially relative to their time spent in care, compared to other children with experience of residential care. By age 18, both groups of children were more likely to not be in education, employment or training, to have gone missing, been convicted, had a substance misuse problem, and to have had a fixed-term exclusion both in the year before entering residential care and during Key Stage 4. Our results cannot determine which factors drive poor outcomes for children who have lived in residential care, but we think it’s important to consider this in light of the children’s high levels of need and experience of instability, to understand how they can be better supported. 

Our findings paint a worrying picture, underlining high levels of need and placement instability, as well as very poor outcomes for children who have experience of residential care. Following the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, government,  policy-makers, commissioners and researchers will be considering how the current system can be improved to meet the needs of children. Future reform must take into account these  children and young people, and the differences and complexities within this group, to ensure future changes work for them. At a local level, decision-makers in local authorities should consider current placement matching processes as well as support given to children after a placement move to help ensure greater placement stability for these young people.

In this study, we focused on understanding the use of residential care, the children who experience it, their pathways and the factors that predict entry into residential care. Through our wider work, we know that residential care plays an important role in the system and is the right placement for some children. When residential care is done well and puts children first, young people can thrive in this sort of placement. But we need to improve the support that young people receive both before and upon entering children’s homes to ensure this vulnerable group achieve their full potential.

We will be unpacking our findings about residential care in more detail in our lunchtime webinar on 18 July, where we’ll also hear what this means for the sector. 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.