Reporting Year 2021

Characteristics of children in need

Published

Introduction

These statistics, derived from the annual Children in Need Census, provide data on children in England referred to children’s social care services, assessments carried out relating to those children and whether a child became the subject of a child protection plan.

Children in Need are a legally defined group of children (under the Children Act 1989), assessed as needing help and protection as a result of risks to their development or health. This group includes children subject to Child in Need Plans, Child Protection plans, Looked After Children, young carers, and disabled children. Children in need include young people aged 18 or over who continue to receive care, accommodation or support from children’s services and unborn children.

The latest statistics relate to the year ending 31 March 2021, with comparable time series data available from 2013.


Headline facts and figures - 2021

This is the first release in the series to be fully impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In the year ending 31 March 2021, there was a 31% decrease in referrals from schools (a fall of just under 36,000 referrals), reflective of the restrictions on school attendance in place for parts of the year. This in turn may have contributed to the falls seen in the other headline measures in this release.

150 out of 151 local authorities provided a return for the 2021 collection. Hackney were unable to do so, due to a cyberattack which had a significant impact on their information management systems. As a result, 2020 figures for Hackney have been included in the 2021 national and regional totals. 

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Children in need

Number and rate of children in need

In 2021 (as at 31 March), the number of children in need decreased slightly and is at its lowest level since 2013. 

The associated rate (per 10,000 children) has fallen for the third consecutive year and is now at its lowest level in the series.

Number and rate (per 10,000 children) of children in need at 31 March, 2013 to 2021, England

 201320142015201620172018201920202021
Number378,030 395,480390,130393,910389,040404,710399,510389,260388,490
Annual change      17,450   -5,350     3,780     -4,870   15,670   -5,200   -10,250          -770
Annual  % change       4.6%    -1.4%     1.0%    -1.2%4.0%   -1.3%    -2.6%    -0.2%
Rate     330.9       343.7     336.6     337.3       330.1      341.0     334.2      323.7       321.2
Annual change            12.8            -7.1           0.7            -7.2         10.9         -6.8         -10.5           -2.5

Source: Children in Need census

Footnotes

  1. Rates per 10,000 of the population of children aged under 18 years are calculated using Office for National Statistics (ONS) mid-year population estimates for children aged 0 to 17 years in England.

Episodes of need

A child begins an episode of need when they are referred to children’s social care services. Each child in need can have more than one episode during the year and on average has two episodes a year.

In (the year ending 31 March) 2021, both the number of episodes starting and episodes ending fell considerably and are at their lowest levels in the series. A larger fall in episodes ending has led to a slight fall in the number of children in need as at 31 March 2021.

Duration of episodes

Almost half of all episodes of need ending in 2021 lasted 3 months or less, whereas just under 1 in 10 lasted for more than two years; this is similar to previous years.

Children in need by characteristics

Gender

In 2021 (as at 31 March), males continued to be slightly over-represented in the children in need population; 54% were male, compared to 51% of the overall population aged 0 to 17 (as shown in latest ONS mid-year population estimates).

Ethnicity

In 2021, 7 in 10 children in need were white and 3 in 10 were from all other ethnic groups combined.

The proportion of children in need from all other ethnic groups combined has increased since 2015. This in part reflects the changes to the overall population as reported in the school census.

Age

The children in need population is ageing and those aged 10 and over now make up the majority.

In 2021, young people aged 18 or over who were still receiving care and accommodation or post-care support from children’s social care services accounted for 1 in 8 of children in need. Unborn children accounted for 1 in 50.

Characteristics of children in need at 31 March, 2015 to 2021, England

  2015  (%)2018 (%)2021 (%)

% point difference

        2015 - 2021

Gender  Female45.545.044.3-1.2
 Male52.553.053.61.1
 Unknown or Indeterminate/Unborn2.02.02.10.1
EthnicityWhite75.172.670.9-4.2
 Other Ethnic Groups24.927.429.14.2
Age Under 1/Unborn7.16.96.3-0.8
 1 – 9 years old44.641.637.8-6.8
 10 – 15 years old30.131.631.41.3
 16 and over 18.219.924.46.2

Footnotes

  1. White comprises white British, white Irish, traveller of Irish heritage, any other white background and Gypsy/Roma.                                                                                                 

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. A re-referral occurs where a child has been referred within 12 months of a previous referral.

In (the year ending 31 March) 2021, the number of referrals had the sharpest fall in the series and is now at its lowest point since 2013. This was driven by a fall in referrals from schools (see “Source of referrals”). The number of re-referrals also decreased and is now at its lowest point in the series.

In 2021, re-referrals continued to represent around a quarter of all referrals.

Source of referrals

Referrals to children’s social care services can be made from various different sources. In 2021, referrals from the police remained the most common source and was the only source to show an increase.

The overall fall in referrals has been driven by a 31% decrease in referrals from schools (a fall of just under 36,000 referrals), reflective of the restrictions on school attendance in place for parts of the year. This in turn may have contributed to the falls in 2021 seen in the other children in need measures.

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

Between 2013 and 2021, the percentage of referrals which resulted in no further action after initial consideration (but no assessment) more than halved. Information from local authorities suggests that while local practice varies, there has been a general trend in recent years for some children to be triaged to other services, for example early help, before reaching the referral stage for children's services; this may have contributed to the fall in referrals resulting in no further action.

In contrast, the percentage of referrals where children were assessed as not being in need increased over the period. 

In 2021, both measures remained stable. Over a third of referrals continued to either result in no further action after initial consideration or went on to be assessed as not in need.

Assessments

Number and duration of assessments 

When a child is referred to children’s social care, an assessment is carried out (usually within 45 days working days of a referral) to identify if the child is in need of services. These services can include, for example, family support, leaving care support, adoption support or disabled children’s services (including social care, education and health provision).

There was a fall in the number of assessments in (the year ending 31 March) 2021, reversing the upward trend seen in previous years. Since there was a large decrease in referrals to children’s social care services in 2021, it is expected that the number of assessments would also fall.

In 2021, the average duration of an assessment fell for the first time in the series. 

Primary need identified at assessment

A social worker determines the child’s primary need at their 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.

Over half of the children in need in 2021 (as at 31 March) had abuse or neglect identified as their primary need at assessment. Overall, primary need at assessment showed a similar pattern to previous years.

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. The majority of children have more than one factor recorded for each episode of need. It should be noted that not all episodes have factors recorded, but this is improving; local authorities have been encouraged to report all relevant factors, which may account for some of the increases seen in recent years. 

Concerns about the child’s parent/carer being the victim of domestic violence remained the most common factor in 2021, being identified in one third of episodes with assessment factor information. The next most common factor was concerns about the mental health of the child’s parent/carer, followed by emotional abuse. This pattern has remained unchanged since 2018. 

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 (ICPC) should be convened within 15 working days.

After reaching a peak in (year ending 31 March) 2019, the number and rate (per 10,000 children) of section 47 enquiries continued to fall in 2021. The number and rate of ICPCs peaked in 2018 and fell more noticeably in 2021. The number of ICPCs is now at its lowest point since 2015 and the associated rate is at its lowest point since 2014. 

The percentage of section 47 enquiries which led to an ICPC fell slightly to 37% in 2021, continuing the decreasing trend seen since 2013, when it was 47%.

Number and rates (per 10,000 children) of section 47 enquiries and initial child protection conferences, year ending 31 March, 2013 to 2021, England

 201320142015201620172018201920202021
Number of Section 47s127,190142,710160,490172,510185,680198,090201,170201,000198,790
Rate of Section 47s111.3124.0138.5147.7157.6166.9168.3167.2164.4
Number of ICPCs60,08065,19071,41073,05076,93079,47077,44077,47072,580
Rate of ICPCs52.656.761.662.665.367.064.864.460.0

Footnotes

  1. Rates per 10,000 of the population of children aged under 18 years are calculated using Office for National Statistics (ONS) mid-year population estimates for children aged 0 to 17 years in England.

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 and rate (per 10,000 children) of children on protection plans peaked in 2018 (figures as at 31 March) and has since fallen for the third consecutive year in 2021. 

The number of children on protection plans is at its lowest point since 2015, and the associated rate is at its lowest point since 2013.

The number of children on protection plans at 31 March 2021 shows a fall of 3% compared with a year earlier, and this is supported by findings during the same week from the Vulnerable Children and Young people survey. However, the survey also shows that for large parts of the year (June 2020 to January 2021), the number of children on protection plans was higher than the same period a year earlier, thereby showing that the overall pattern was not consistent throughout the year.

Number and rate (per 10,000 children) of child protection plans as at 31 March, 2013 to 2021, England

 201320142015201620172018201920202021
Number 43,19048,30049,69050,13051,08053,79052,26051,51050,010
     Annual Change 5,1101,3906207702,710-1,530-750-1,500
     Annual % Change 11.8%2.9%1.2%1.5%5.3%-2.8%-1.4%-2.9%
          
Rate 37.842.042.943.143.345.343.742.841.4
    Annual Change 4.20.90.20.22.0-1.6-0.9-1.4

Source: Children in Need census

Footnotes: 

  1. Rates per 10,000 of the population of children aged under 18 years are calculated using Office for National Statistics (ONS) mid-year population estimates for children aged 0 to 17 years in England.

Child protection plans by initial category of abuse

Neglect remained the most common initial category of abuse recorded for children on protection plans in 2021, accounting for almost half of children. The next most common category continued to be emotional abuse, accounting for over one-third of children. 

In 2021, the number of children with neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse recorded as the initial category of abuse decreased. In contrast, the numbers with emotional abuse or multiple categories of abuse both increased.

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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
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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.

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