Reporting year 2020

Children looked after in England including adoptions

View latest data: Reporting year 2023This is not the latest data
UK statistics authority quality mark
Last updated
See all updates (5) for Reporting year 2020
  1. Correction to the metadata relating to the "LA - Children who started to be looked after during the year" dataset.

  2. Correction made to 2018 and 2019 data in "Children looked after at 31 March with three or more placements during the year, or aged under 16 at 31 March who had been looked after continuously for at least 2.5 years and who were living in the same placement for at least 2 years" dataset.

  3. Additional footnotes added

  4. Local authority level data on placement stability and local authority level data for care leavers have been added.

  5. Correction to metadata for LA level 'children ceasing to be looked after' file

Release type


Information on children looked after in England, including numbers of looked after children adopted, care leavers and looked after children who are missing. Data is taken from the annual SSDA903 data collection.

Although the majority of this data relates to before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there could be a small effect on these figures due to the impact the pandemic had on social work practice in the second half of March 2020. The vulnerable children and young people survey has been collecting information from local authorities in England to help understand the how the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak affected children’s social care.

Figures relate to the year ending 31 March 2020 unless otherwise stated.

Headline facts and figures - 2020

Explore data and files used in this release

  • View or create your own tables

    View tables that we have built for you, or create your own tables from open data using our table tool

  • Data catalogue

    Browse and download open data files from this release in our data catalogue

  • Data guidance

    Learn more about the data files used in this release using our online guidance

  • Download all data (ZIP)

    Download all data available in this release as a compressed ZIP file

Children looked after on 31 March

At 31 March, the number of children looked after (CLA) by local authorities in England rose to 80,080, up 2%, and continuing the rise seen in recent years. This is a rate of 67 per 10,000 children - up from 65 in 2019 and 64 in 2018. 

Rates per 10,000 children - Blackpool has the highest at 223 - Wokingham has the lowest at 24.

Characteristics of children looked after

The general characteristics of CLA are similar to last year - 56% are male, 39% were aged 10-15 years and 74% were of white ethnic origin.

Reasons for being looked after

When a child is assessed by children's services their primary need is recorded. There are a range of reasons why a child is looked after, figures have remained broadly stable over the past 3 years. However, the most common reason is abuse or neglect, which has been gradually rising over a number of years. 

Legal status of  children looked after

There has been a noticeable change in the legal status of CLA in recent years. Both the number and proportion of CLA under a care order have increased, whilst the number and proportion looked after under a voluntary agreement (under section 20 of the Children Act 1989) have decreased. This is following a family court ruling in 2015 on the use of voluntary agreements. At 31 March 2020, children were looked after:

  • under a care order - a court order placing a child in the care or supervision of a local authority - 77% - up from 75% last year.
  • under a voluntary agreement - this allows the local authority to provide accommodation for a child where there's parental consent, or when no-one with parental responsibility is in place - 17% down from 18% last year.
  • under a placement order - a court order allowing a local authority to place a child for adoption -  6% - down from 7% last year.
  • detained for child protection or under youth justice legal statuses - each less than 0.5%

Placements of children looked after

The majority of the 80,080 CLA are placed in a foster placement, where an approved carer looks after the child - 72%. 

Foster placements can be with a relative or friend, or another carer . The proportion of CLA in foster placements with a relative or friend have increased very slightly up to 14%, from 13% in each of the last two years. The proportion of CLA in foster placements with another carer (not a relative or friend) has decreased to 57%, down from 58% last year and 60% in 2018. 

The remaining CLA were placed:

  • in secure units, children's homes or semi-independent living accommodation (for example hostels, lodgings or flats where staff are employed to provide support and advice) - 13% - same as last year
  • with parents - 7% - same as last year
  • in the community, living independently, or in residential employment -3% - down from 4% last year
  • for adoption - 3% - same as last year
  • in other residential settings (including care homes, schools or custody) - 2% - same as last year

Placement stability is important - most CLA (68%) had one placement in the year but 11% had three or more.

Locality of placements

Local authorities have a general duty to provide accommodation that is within the local authorities' area, that meets the need of the child and allows the child to live near their home. 

Placements inside the council boundary accounted for 58% of all CLA placements, 

The majority of CLA were placed within 20 miles of home - 73% - but 20% were not. Information for the remaining 7% was not known or not recorded - this could be because the home address is not known, the child is UASC, or for reasons of confidentiality for example children placed for adoption. As expected, location of placement varies by placement type - children placed for adoption are the most likely to be placed over 20 miles from home and children placed with parents or in a foster placement are most likely to be placed 20 miles or less from home.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC)

UASC are children, who have applied for asylum in their own right and are separated from both parents and/or any other responsible adult. Local authorities have a legal duty to provide accommodation for these children.

The number of UASC was 5,000, down 3% on the peak of 5,140 UASC last year. UASC are a distinct group of CLA and currently represent around 6% of all CLA. 

UASC are generally male - 90% - and older - 86% are aged 16 and over which is up from 85% last year and 81% in 2018. Absent parenting was the main category of need for these young people - 87%.

UASC are not distributed evenly across the country - they tend to be concentrated in local authorities that are points of entry to the country, for example Kent or Croydon.

Children starting to be looked after

The number of children starting to be looked after has fallen by 3% from 31,770 last year to 30,970. This continues the recent trend of the numbers starting to be looked after falling, from a peak of 32,940 in 2017. 

The ages of children starting to be looked after are quite evenly spread across the age groups; 19% were aged under 1 year, 17% were aged 1 to 4 years, 16% were aged 5 to 9 years, 27% were aged 10 to 15 years and 20% were aged 16 years and over.

Half of children starting to be looked after were initially looked after under a voluntary agreement under S20 of the Children Act 1989, however a child's legal status is likely to change during their  period of care. 36% started to be looked after under a care order, 11% were detained for child protection and 2% were detained for youth justice reasons.

Health outcomes for children looked after for at least 12 months on 31 March

Figures relate to the 56,780 children looked after on 31 March for at least 12 months in the year ending 31 March 2020 unless otherwise stated

Offending rates 

Information on offending rates is collected for children aged 10 years or over – 39,620 children in 2020. Of these, the proportion convicted or subject to youth cautions or youth conditional cautions during the year was 3% - the same as in 2019 and down from 4% in 2018. 

Males are more likely to offend than females - 4% of males were convicted or subject to youth cautions or youth conditional cautions during the year compared to 2% of females. This is a similar pattern to previous years.

Substance Misuse 

CLA identified as having a substance misuse problem – 3%, down slightly from 4% in both 2018 and 2019. 

Substance misuse is slightly more common in males – 4%, compared to 3% of females.

An intervention was received for 45% of children who were identified as having a substance misuse problem.

Substance misuse is defined as ‘intoxication by (or regular excessive consumption or and/or dependence on) psychoactive substances, leading to social, psychological, physical or legal problems’. It includes problematic use of both legal and illegal drugs (including alcohol when used in combination with other substances). ‘Substance’ refers to both drugs and alcohol but not tobacco. Interventions may include advice, guidance or therapeutic support. Further information can be found in appendix 2 of the collection guide.

Health and development outcomes

Most CLA are up to date with their health care with: 

  • reported as being up to date with their immunisations – 88%, up slightly from 87% last year and 85% in 2018
  • reported as having had their annual health assessment – 90%, the same as last year and up slightly from 88% in 2018
  • reported as having had their teeth checked by a dentist – 86%, the same as last year and up from 84% in 2018
  • Under 5s reported as having development assessments up to date – 88%, the same as last year and up from 85% in 2018.

Older children were less likely to be up to date with immunisations – particularly older males – but this could be influenced by the relatively large number of UASC in this category for whom immunisation history may not be known. 

Immunisations up to date reports whether the child has had all the immunisations that a child of their age should have received. It includes immunisations which should have been given before the child became looked after. 

All children covered in this cohort can be expected to have their teeth checked by a dentist, even very young children. Children who have declined to have their teeth checked are recorded as not having received a dental check. 

Health assessments must be carried out by a doctor or other suitably qualified professional twice a year for those under 5 years of age. Both these assessments must be carried out in order for the annual assessment requirement to be satisfied for under 5s. For those aged 5 or over, a single annual assessment fulfils the requirement. Children who decline to have a health assessment are reported as not having received an annual assessment.

For more information see the children looked after data collection guide.

Emotional and behavioural health (SDQ scores) 

For looked after children aged 5 to 16 years (42,500 children), a SDQ score was reported SDQ for 81% of them, with an average score of 14.1. This is very similar to the score of 14.2 in 2019 and 2018. 

Of these:

  • 49% had ‘normal’ emotional and behavioural health (same as last year)
  • 13% had ‘borderline’ scores (same as last year)
  • 38% had scores which were a cause for concern (down slightly from 39% last year).

Across almost all ages, males are more likely to have scores which were a cause for concern. In 2020 41% of males had a score which was a cause for concern, compared to 34% of females.

Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) scores - This describes the emotional and behavioural health of CLA, as recorded by a main carer in the strengths and difficulties questionnaire (SDQ). The SDQ is a short behavioural screening questionnaire. Its primary purpose is to give social workers and health professionals information about a child’s wellbeing. A score of 0 to 13 is considered normal, 14 to 16 is borderline, and 17 to 40 is a cause for concern. For further information see the children looked after data collection guide.

Children looked after who were missing

Note: These figures are published as OFFICIAL STATISTICS. We do not recommend users make comparisons between local authorities or across years due to difference in reporting practices. This information was collected this way for the first time in 2015. However, an increasing number of local authorities are not using the away without authorisation category, to align their figures with information collected locally by the police. This means they will be reporting both their missing and away without authorisation incidents as missing. We anticipate figures for missing are over reported by about 13%. See the methodology document for further details.

Missing incidents were reported for 11% of CLA (12,430 children) in 2020 and there were 81,090 missing incidents.  This is an average (mean) of 6.5 missing incidents per child who went missing. 

The largest proportion of missing incidents were from ‘secure units, children’s homes and semi-independent living arrangements’ (56%), however this is likely because more older children are placed in these settings and older children are more likely to go missing. 25% of missing incidents were from foster placements and 14% from CLA who were living independently.

Away without authorisation incidents were reported for 3% of CLA (3,390 children).

Missing from care: A looked after child who is not at their placement or the place they are expected to be (for example school) and their whereabouts is not known.

Away from placement without authorisation: A looked after child whose whereabouts is known but who is not at their placement or place they are expected to be and the carer has concerns or the incident has been notified to the local authority or the police.

Children who ceased to be looked after in the year

29,590 children ceased being looked after in the year ending 31 March 2020, almost the same as the 29,570 who ceased being looked after in 2019 but down from a peak of 31,850 in 2016.

Reasons for ceasing to be looked after

The most common reason for children to leave care is to return home to their parents (29%). Other common reasons for leaving care include moving into independent living with supportive accommodation (14%), leaving under a special guardianship order (12%) or for adoption (12%).

In recent years, the proportion of children ceasing who were male, and who ceased on their 18th birthday have both been increasing, likely to be influenced by the large increase in UASC in the last few years reaching 18 years of age and leaving the care system.  This year, 57% of those children ceasing to be looked after were male, the same as in 2019 and 2018 and 35% ceased being looked after on or after their 18th birthday (compared to 32% in 2019 and 31% in 2018). The proportions of looked after children in each age group are similar to last year.

The average duration of the latest period of care for children who ceased to be looked after in 2020 was 830 days (over 2 years and three months). This has increased by 23 days since 2019 and is up 60 days compared to 2018.

Children looked after who were adopted

The number of CLA who were adopted fell by 4% to 3,440 from 3,590 in 2019. Adoptions rose sharply from 2011 to a peak in 2015 at 5,360 but has since been decreasing. This is in line with the decrease in the number of looked after children with a placement order seen over recent years. This pattern follows two court rulings in 2013, which stated that adoption orders should be made only when there was no other alternative, such as placing a child with birth relatives.

The average age of a child at adoption has fallen to 3 years old, from 3 years and 2 months last year and down from 3 years and 3 months in 2018. However, over the same time period, the average age of a child on starting their final period of care has also fallen in a similar way, to being 1 year old in 2020, down from 1 year 2 months last year and 1 year 4 months in 2018.

The average duration of the final period of care for these children remains at 2 years, the same as last year. 63% of looked after children who were adopted had a final period of care lasting less than 2 years, down from 65% in 2019 and 67% in 2018.

The average time between a child entering care and the date they are placed for adoption has remained the same as last year, at 1 year and 3 months, up from 1 year 2 months in 2018. The slight increase is down to the average time between entry to care and the decision being taken that a child should be placed for adoption increasing from 6 months last year to 7 months this year. The overall average time between entry into care and adoption remains at 2 years, the same as last year.

Children looked after who left care through a special guardianship order

Children ceasing to be looked after through a special guardianship order (SGO) decreased by 4% to 3,700, 12% of children ceasing to be looked after left through a SGO. Most SGOs were to relatives or friends – 89% - the remainder were largely to former foster carers – 9%.

The average (mean) age at SGO increased to 5 years and 10 months, up from 5 years and 7 months last year but similar to 2018.

Former care leavers

Data collected on care leavers

Local authorities provide information about children who were previously looked after, who turned 17 to 21 in the year. These were CLA for at least 13 weeks after their 14th birthday, including some time after their 16th birthday. 

‘In touch’

Local authorities are expected to stay in touch with care leavers and provide statutory support to help the care leaver transition to living independently. The proportion of care leavers whom the local authority is in touch with varies by age - younger care leavers are less likely to be in touch with the local authority and so less information is known about their activity and accommodation.

Activity of former care leavers

For 17-year olds - there were 480 care leavers in 2020 -  59% were male and 41% were female. Of these young people:

  • 37% were in education
  • 12% in training or employment
  • 27% were known to be not in education, employment or training (NEET)
  • but information was not known for 24%

For 18-year olds - there were 11,220 care leavers in 2020 - 64% were male and 36% were female. Of these young people:

  • 48% were in education,
  • 17% in training or employment
  • 31% were NEET
  • information was not known for 5%

For 19- to 21- year olds - there were 31,260 care leavers in 2020 - 61% were male and 39% were female. Of these young people:

  • 6% were known to be in higher education
  • 20% were in other education
  • 26% were in training or employment
  • 39% were NEET, compared to around 13% of all young people aged 19 to 21 years
  • information was not known for 9%

Accommodation of former care leavers

As former care leavers get older, they tend to transition into more independent living arrangements.

For 17-year-old care leavers 46% were living with parents, 6% were in semi-independent transitional accommodation and 9% were in custody (however, for 24% the information was not known).

For 18-year-old care leavers 30% were in semi-independent transitional accommodation, 19% were with former foster carers, 11% were in independent living and 11% were living with parents or relatives. Information was not known for 5% of young people.

For 19- to 21-year-old care leavers 35% were living independently, 15% were living in semi-independent transitional accommodation, 11% were living with parents or relatives and 8% were living with former foster carers. Information was not known for 9% of young people.

Accommodation suitability

Information on whether care leaver accommodation is suitable can be used to monitor whether they are receiving the support they need to make a successful transition to adulthood. However, there are no hard and fast rules on whether accommodation is deemed ‘suitable’; the decision will depend on the circumstances of the individual case. The proportions of young people deemed to be in suitable accommodation are in the table.

“Staying Put”

The number and proportion of 19- and 20-year-olds who ceased to be looked after on their 18th birthday and who were still living with their former foster carers (‘Staying Put’) increased slightly from 26% in 2019 to 28% in 2020. 

Children who ceased being looked after in a foster placement aged 18, who remained with their foster carers 3 months after their 18th birthday was 58% (1,970 young people) - up from 57% last year (1,970 young people) and 55% in 2018 (1,810 young people).

Former care leavers who were unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

An increasing proportion of former care leavers were UASC - figures are in the table. In 2020, 27% of 18-year-old and 23% of 19-21-year-old former care leavers were UASC. This is up from 24% and 16% in 2018. This is due to the peak in the number of UASC around 2015 moving through the age groups and who are now care leavers.

Find my data and feedback

This section provides guidance on finding data and providing feedback. 

Find my data 

To find information on topics of interest, expand the content sections i.e. children looked after at 31 March, former care leavers, etc. In each section, there will be summary commentary and related tables/charts. You can also create your own tables through the table tool or modify the pre- prepared tables which use the same files. 

At the top of the release, there is a link ‘download associated files’ which includes the data and metadata that sits underneath the release. There are also links under ‘related guidance’ at the top right-hand side of the release. These will direct you to the statistics methodology document, the latest data collection guide and the EES glossary.

The standard period for data in the release is for the year ending 31 March 2018 to the year ending 31 March 2020. The data set ‘National - Time series of children looked after data - 1994 to 2020’ includes longer time series data from 1994 for children looked after, and for unaccompanied asylum seeking-children a time series from 2004.

Previous publications on children looked after can be found on GOV.UK at: Statistics - looked after children.


This release is a completely new approach to publishing our data and statistics which we are looking to evolve over time. Your feedback is important to help us improve and develop. To provide feedback on this release, content, or functionality, and for any other queries, please contact the CLA statistics mailbox. 


Help and support


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

National statistics

These accredited official statistics have been independently reviewed by the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR). They comply with the standards of trustworthiness, quality and value in the Code of Practice for Statistics. Accredited official statistics are called National Statistics in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007.

Accreditation signifies 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

Our statistical practice is regulated by the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR).

OSR sets the standards of trustworthiness, quality and value in the Code of Practice for Statistics that all producers of official statistics should adhere to.

You are welcome to contact us directly with any comments about how we meet these standards. Alternatively, you can contact OSR by emailing or via the OSR website.

Contact us

If you have a specific enquiry about Children looked after in England including adoptions statistics and data:

Looked-after children statistics team

Contact name: Justin Ushie
Telephone: 01915358967

Press office

If you have a media enquiry:

Telephone: 020 7783 8300

Public enquiries

If you have a general enquiry about the Department for Education (DfE) or education:

Telephone: 037 0000 2288

Opening times:
Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5pm (excluding bank holidays)