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The Centre will collate and publish reviews of existing research evidence. Where there are gaps, and where the evidence base is weak, we will commission or carry out new research.

Our initial research projects and evidence reviews were selected following consultation with the sector and initial reviews of the literature.
In the first instance, we will focus on one priority area and three exploratory areas for further work:

Priority topic:
• Safely reducing the need for children to enter care

Development topics:
• Supervision and decision-making
• The “front door” (local authorities’ arrangements for responding to safeguarding concerns)
• Workforce well-being, retention and turnover.

Priority topic: Safely reducing the need for children to enter care
The number of children entering care has increased substantially over the last 20 years. In 1997 in England there were 50,900 children in care and this had increased to 72,670 in 2017, an increase of 43 per cent.

This increase has led to considerable public expression of concern, including the publication of the recent Care Crisis Review from the Nuffield Foundation. Of course, preventing entry into care is not always the right thing to do. But we need to be confident that children are only entering care when that is the best option for them and that their family have been offered the best possible opportunity to stay together.

The Centre aims to help identify best practice – looking at existing research and local authorities that seem to be bucking the national trend. We will be sharing learning, evaluating some existing ways of working and developing a programme of studies to evaluate what might work to safely reduce the need for children to enter care.

The importance of this issue has been continuously highlighted as we have engaged and consulted with the sector. Approximately half of the What Works Centre’s initial research resource to March 2020 will be directed towards studies and reviews in this area.

We have now completed the first, ‘scoping’ phase of work in this area, and the reports can be accessed here:

From November 2018 until March 2020 we will be exploring the benefits of approaches to reducing care numbers identified as promising in the scoping phase. From 2020 onwards we plan to launch a programme of studies evaluating promising approaches to helping keep children safely at home in local areas.

We have already started phase two, with a mixed methods systematic review of the effectiveness of Signs of Safety in reducing the need for children to be in care. This report considers whether, how, for whom and under what conditions Signs of Safety works to safely reduce care numbers. The review includes a summary for practitioners and an implementation summary for managers, and whilst it finds no evidence that Signs of Safety does not work, nor does it find compelling evidence that it does. Our first recommendation is therefore that the evidence base for Signs of Safety urgently needs developing. We will follow-up this work with our own review of Signs of Safety in the New Year, starting with a clear and practicable specification of what high-quality SoS looks like, in order to enable evaluations of the impact of high-quality implementation to take place.

Development topics
Our consultation with the sector also identified three other potential priority topics that are important to leaders and practitioners. These were:
• Supervision and decision-making
• The “front door” (local authorities’ arrangements for responding to referrals)
• Workforce well-being, retention and turnover.

We will work with the Centre’s partner local authorities to develop focussed reviews of the evidence, and one or two research projects, on each topic. We will review the findings and decide whether further research is appropriate.

Find out more about our work with local authority partners.

Our approach
One of the most common mistakes made in research is to go too big, too early. If interventions – and the way they are evaluated – are not tested and developed in smaller pilot studies, the risk is that they are not delivered well in large studies or funding is wasted evaluating an intervention that was in fact unlikely to succeed.
We recognise this and, in line with good practice guidance such as that of the Medical Research Council on evaluating complex interventions, we plan to carry out a programme of small-scale feasibility studies of promising interventions.

The interventions will be related to our priority topics. We will work with the Centre’s partner local authorities to develop the interventions so that they can be tested and evaluated on a small scale. This will enable us to assess if they are promising interventions that can then be evaluated further.

This programme of studies will provide the foundation for research to identify what works, while also allowing us to quickly identify innovations that seem unlikely to be effective.

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CASCADE at Cardiff University leads the Research Partner to the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care.

Research Reports

Who's involved

Development team

Research partner