Reporting Year 2020

Characteristics of children in need

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Introduction

This statistics publication provides the latest information on children referred to children’s social care, assessments carried out upon those children and whether a child became the subject of a child protection plan. 

The statistics in this publication are derived from information collected in the children in need census. The Department for Education has collected the children in need census from local authorities for each full 12 month period since 2009 to 2010. The latest collection covers the year from 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020. More information on the children in need census is available in the guide to submitting data.


Headline facts and figures - 2020

  • There were 389,260 children in need at 31 March 2020, a decrease of 2.6% from the same point in 2019.
  • This was a rate of 323.7 per 10,000 children, down from 334.2 last year and the lowest rate in the last 8 years.
  • There were 51,510 children in need on child protection plans, a decrease of 1.4% from the same point in 2019.
  • This was a rate of 42.8 per 10,000 children, down from 43.7 last year.
  • There were 642,980 referrals during the year, a decrease of 1.0% compared to 2019.
  • Domestic violence by the parent was identified as a factor at the end of assessment in 169,860 episodes of need and remains the most common factor.

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About these statistics

The statistics in this publication are derived from information collected in the children in need census. The Department for Education has collected the children in need census from local authorities for each full 12 month period since 2009 to 2010. The latest collection covers the year from 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020. More information on the children in need census is available in the guide to submitting data.

They provide the latest information on children referred to children’s social care, assessments carried out upon those children and whether a child became the subject of a child protection plan.

A referral is defined as a request for services to be provided by children’s social care and is in respect of a child who is not currently in need.

When a child is referred to children’s social care, an assessment is carried out to identify if the child is in need of services, which local authorities have an obligation to provide under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. These services can include, for example, family support (to help keep together families experiencing difficulties), leaving care support (to help young people who have left local authority care), adoption support or disabled children’s services (including social care, education and health provision).

A child in need is defined under the Children Act 1989 as a child who is unlikely to reach or maintain a satisfactory level of health or development, or their health or development will be significantly impaired without the provision of children's social care services, or the child is disabled.

A child begins an episode of need when they are referred to children’s social care services. More information on how we calculate episodes is provided in the methodology section.

A child becomes the subject of a child protection plan if they are assessed as being at risk of harm, at an initial child protection conference. 

Method for counting the number of children in need episodes

A child can start or end an episode of need more than once during the year, but they should not have over-lapping episodes. For example, if a child began an episode of need in May 2019 which ended in August 2019 and the same child began another episode of need in December 2019 and was still in need at 31 March 2020, this would count as two starts, one end and one count at 31 March 2020. The number of children in need these episodes relate to (a de-duplicated child count)  accompanies all episode-level measures. A more detailed explanation of this method is provided in the methodology section.

Children in need

Number and rate of Children in Need

A child in need is defined under the Children Act 1989 as a child who is unlikely to reach or maintain a satisfactory level of health or development, or their health or development will be significantly impaired without the provision of children's social care services, or the child is disabled.

There were 389,260 children in need at 31 March 2020, a decrease of 2.6% from the same point in 2019. This is explained by an increase in the number children ending an episode during the year, while the number starting an episode remained relatively stable. 

The rate of children in need at 31 March 2020 was 323.7 per 10,000 children, the lowest rate in the last 8 years.

Similarly, there was a decrease in the rate of children starting an episode of need in the year ending 31 March 2020, down to 316.9. Again this is the lowest rate in the last 8 years. In contrast, the rate of children ending an episode increased to 290.7 and is at the highest rate since 2015. 

Although the majority of this data relates to before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there was a noticeable decrease in the number of referrals in March compared to previous years. The vulnerable children and young people survey has been collecting information from local authorities in England to help understand the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on children’s social care. The ‘Referrals’ section in this release also provides further information.

Rate of Children in Need by region

The rate of children in need at 31 March 2020 varied between regions, with the North East (462.9) having the highest rate and the East of England (236.1) the lowest.

Children in need by gender, age and ethnicity

Children in Need by age group and gender

Of children in need at 31 March 2020, 54% were male and 44% female (with 2% unborn or of unknown gender), whereas ONS 2019 mid-year estimates show that 51% of children are male and 49% female. 

Since 2015 the percentage of children in need aged 10 years or over has increased from 48% to 55%, with the two “older” age categories reflecting a long term increase. In particular, the proportion of children in need aged 16 or over has increased from 18.2% to 23.2% in the last six years.

Children in Need by ethnicity

The ethnic breakdown of children in need is similar to last year. However, over the last five years there has been a gradual decline in the proportion of children in need that were White. In contrast, there have been slight increases across the other major ethnic groups. These trends may in part reflect the changes in the ethnic diversity of the overall population of children over the same period.

Episodes of need

Episodes of need

The number of episodes of need starting during the year ending 31 March 2020 was 408,310, which is relatively unchanged from last year. However, the number of episodes ending increased for a second successive year and was up 2.3% compared to last year, to 371,070.

There were 760,330 episodes of need at any point during the year, which is broadly similar to to 2019.

There are no long-term increasing or decreasing trends in the number of episodes starting and ending in the year, or at any point during the year.

Duration of episodes

Just under half of episodes of need ending in the year lasted 3 months or less and almost 1 in 10 lasted for more than two years. Since 2017 there has been a gradual increase in the percentage of episodes lasting 3 months or less. In contrast, there has been a gradual decline in the percentage of episodes lasting 2 years or more over the same period.

Referrals

Referrals and re-referrals

A referral is defined as a request for services to be provided by children’s social care and is in respect of a child who is not currently in need.

There were 642,980 referrals during the year ending 31 March 2020, a decrease of almost 8,000 (1%) from 2019. 

This decrease is largely accounted for by a drop in referrals in March 2020, which were just over 8,500 lower than 2018 and almost 10,000 lower than 2019. For the preceding eleven months the number of referrals showed a similar pattern to 2019 and were at a similar level. The decrease in referrals in March 2020 is therefore likely to be explained by the nationwide lockdown which began during the month, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A re-referral occurs where a child has been referred within 12 months of a previous referral. There were 145,390 re-referrals during the year, which was similar to last year and represented almost a quarter of all referrals. 

Referrals requiring no further action or assessed to be not in need 

The percentage of referrals that resulted in no further action decreased from 14.5% to 6.3% between 2013 and 2020. In contrast, the percentage of referrals where children were assessed as not being in need increased from 19.0% to 30.2% over the same period. 

Source of referrals

Referrals can be made from a number of different sources and, as in previous years, the highest proportion (29%) came from the police. The breakdown of referrals by source is very similar to last year.

Assessments

Number and duration of assessments 

Local authorities undertake assessments of the needs of individual children to determine what services to provide and action to take. An assessment should be completed within 45 working days of a referral.

The number of assessments completed in the year has increased in each year since 2015, rising from 550,810 to 665,660 this year. 

The average (median) duration of assessment in 2020 was 32 working days, the same as it was in 2019, however since 2015 the average duration has increased from 28 working days.

The number of children waiting to undergo an assessment or who did not require an assessment at 31 March 2020 decreased to 17,710, from 25,080 last year. This is the lowest level in eight years and may be explained by the noticeable decrease in the number of referrals in March 2020, compared to previous years.

Although children waiting to undergo an assessment are counted as children in need in this publication, it should be noted that they may go on to be assessed as not in need and would therefore be no longer be counted as a child in need. Furthermore, some children may not require an assessment; this may include cases where the child has transferred in to the local authority and an assessment has already been completed, family court related work, adoption support, short breaks and cancelled episodes.

 

Primary need identified at assessment

When a child is assessed following a referral, the practitioner determines the child’s primary need at the first assessment. Only one primary need can be reported at this point and is selected from a hierarchical list (as shown in chart below). In cases where multiple needs are identified, the need highest in the list is reported in the census. 

Over half (56%) of children in need at 31 March 2020 had abuse or neglect as their primary need identified at assessment. Abuse or neglect remains the most common primary need identified at assessment, followed by family dysfunction (14%) and family in acute stress (8%). 

Factors identified at the end of assessment

Factors identified at the end of assessment

Factors identified at the end of assessment are additional factors that social workers record as being relevant in a case at the end of assessment. If more than one factor was identified at assessment, each should be recorded and included in the census. This means that the majority of children will have more than one factor identified and reported for each episode of need. Local authorities have been encouraged to report all relevant factors, which may account for some of the increases seen in recent years.

Domestic violence by a parent remains the most common factor identified at end of assessment, followed by parent mental health.

The number of episodes of need with parent mental health identified as a factor at the end of assessment increased by 20,810 (15%) from last year; representing the largest change in terms of size. There was an increase of 13,910 (22%) in the number episodes where child mental health was identified as a factor, which meant it went from being the 9th to 5th most common factor between 2019 and 2020.

The number of episodes which had gangs identified as a factor at the end of assessment increased by 34% compared to last year and there were also large percentage increases in episodes where drug misuse of child (23%) and trafficking (21%) were identified.

Physical abuse, sexual abuse, child sexual exploitation and privately fostered were the only factors to decrease compared to last year, though the changes were relatively small.

It should be noted that not all episodes of need have factors recorded, but this situation is improving. In the year ending 31 March 2020, 79% of episodes of need had factors identified that contributed to the child being in need, up from 77% in 2019. These episodes had a total of 1.4 million factors identified at the end of assessment, an increase of 8.5% from 2019 despite the number of episodes being relatively unchanged. 

Section 47 enquiries and initial child protection conferences

Section 47 enquiries and initial child protection conferences

If a local authority identifies there is reasonable cause to suspect the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm, it will carry out an assessment under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 to determine if it needs to take steps to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child. If concerns are substantiated and the child is judged to be at continuing risk of harm then an initial child protection conference should be convened within 15 working days.

The number of section 47 enquiries starting in the year ending 31 March 2020 was relatively unchanged from last year at 201,000, ending the upward trend seen in each year from 2013 to 2019.

Similarly, the associated rate of Section 47 enquiries per 10,000 children was stable, at 167.2.

The number of initial stage child protection conferences (ICPCs) which took place during the year was similar to last year, at 77,470. The associated rate was also stable at 64.4 and is at the lowest level since 2016.

The percentage of section 47 enquiries which led to an initial child protection conference was unchanged from last year, at 39%, ending the steadily decreasing trend which was seen between 2013 and 2018.

Child protection plans

Child protection plans

A child becomes the subject of a child protection plan if they are assessed as being at risk of harm, at an initial child protection conference. 

The number of child protection plans starting during the year ending March 31 2020 was relatively unchanged from last year, at 66,380. However, there was a small decrease of 1.4% (to 66,970) in the number of child protection plans ending in the year. For the second successive year more child protection plans ended than started, reversing the pattern seen up until 2018. 

There was a corresponding drop of 1.4% (to 51,510) in the number of children in need that were the subject of a child protection plan at 31 March, compared to last year. The associated rate of child protection plans per 10,000 children is now 42.8, the lowest rate since 2014.

The percentage of children that had been the subject of a child protection plan for longer than three months at 31 March 2020 and had reviews carried out within the required timescales was unchanged from last year, at 91.5%. 

Rate of child protection plans by region

The rate of child protection plans at 31 March 2020 varied between regions, with the North East (70.0) having the highest rate and the East of England (26.3) the lowest.

Child protection plans by initial category of abuse

Neglect (50.5%) remained the most common initial category of abuse for children on child protection plans, followed by emotional abuse (35.7%). Both of these categories have increased in size over the last eight years, whereas the number of children that had physical, sexual or multiple abuse recorded has fallen over the same period.

Help and support

Methodology

Find out how and why we collect, process and publish these statistics

National statistics

The United Kingdom Statistics Authority designated these statistics as National Statistics in accordance with the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and signifying compliance with the Code of Practice for Statistics.

Designation signifying their compliance with the authority's Code of Practice for Statistics which broadly means these statistics are:

  • managed impartially and objectively in the public interest
  • meet identified user needs
  • produced according to sound methods
  • well explained and readily accessible

Once designated as National Statistics it's a statutory requirement for statistics to follow and comply with the Code of Practice for Statistics to be observed.

Find out more about the standards we follow to produce these statistics through our Standards for official statistics published by DfE guidance.

Contact us

Ask questions and provide feedback

If you have a specific enquiry about Characteristics of children in need statistics and data:

Children’s Services Statistics Team

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CIN.Stats@education.gov.uk

Telephone: Mark Taylor
01325 340798

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