Reporting year 2021

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 (2) for Reporting year 2021
  1. Text relating to the 2022 user feedback exercise on the Stability Index was removed once the consultation period closed.

  2. 2022 user feedback exercise on the Stability Index added. Your feedback will be valuable in helping us implement these proposals. Further details and questions we would like you to consider are available in the file ‘2022 user feedback exercise on the Stability Index’ within the ‘Explore data and files’ , ‘All supporting files’ section of the release. Please email your feedback to by 1 April 2022.

Release type


Information on children looked after (CLA) in England, including numbers of CLA adopted, care leavers and CLA who were missing. Data is taken from the annual SSDA903 data collection which is collected from local authorities in England.

This is the first release of data covering the time period of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However over the last year the fortnightly Vulnerable Children and Young People (VCYP) survey has been collecting information from local authorities in England to help understand the how the coronavirus outbreak affected children’s social care.

The latest statistics relate to the year ending 31 March 2021. Each year local authorities can revise previous years data. The standard period for data in this release is for the year ending 31 March 2018 to the year ending 31 March 2021 and figures for these years have been revised in line with amendments made by local authorities during the 2021 collection.

Headline facts and figures - 2021

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

Additional supporting files

All supporting files from this release are listed for individual download below:

  • 2022 user feedback exercise on the Stability Index (docx, 73 Kb)

    The Stability Index is an annual analysis previously produced by the Children’s Commissioner’s Office (CCO), aiming to measure and highlight the issue of instability experienced by children looked after (CLA). It has now been handed over from the CCO to the DfE. The DfE are conducting a full review into the methodology and measures reported while considering how it could be developed in the future. Your feedback will be valuable in helping us implement these proposals. Please consider the questions in the attachment and email your feedback to by 1 April 2022.

CLA on 31 March

In 2021, the number of CLA by local authorities in England rose to its highest level at 80,850, up 1% on last year and continuing the rise seen in recent years. This is a rate of 67 per 10,000 children - the same as last year and up from 64 per 10,000 children in 2018. 

This increase in overall numbers is in line with the findings from Wave 22 of the ‘Vulnerable Children and Young People (VCYP) survey’ which suggested that towards the end of March 2021 the number of CLA were 1% higher than in 2020. 

Number and rate (per 10,000 children) of children looked after on 31 March, 2018 to 2021, England

Number of children looked after75,37078,14080,00080,850
Annual change+2,770+1,860+850
Annual percentage change+4%+2%+1%

Source: SSDA903

Numbers and rates per 10,000 children vary widely across local authorities, for example Blackpool has the highest rate at 210 per 10,000 children and Wokingham has the lowest at 24 per 10,000 children.


The general characteristics of CLA are similar to previous years:

  • Males account for 56% children
  • 10-15-year-olds account for 39% of children, 23% were aged 16+ years, 19% aged 5-9 years, 14% aged 1-4 years and 5% aged less than 1 year
  • Children of White ethnicity account for 75% of children, 10% were Mixed or Multiple ethnic groups, 7% Black, African, Caribbean or Black British, 4% were Asian or Asian British, 3% other ethnicities and ethnicity was not known or not yet recorded for 1%.

Reasons for being looked after

When a child is assessed by children's services their primary need is recorded. This list is hierarchical and where more than one need is identified then the need ‘highest’ up the list is reported. 

‘Abuse or neglect’ was the primary need for two thirds of CLA, continuing the increases in the last few years. ‘Family dysfunction’ was the next most common reason then ‘Family in acute stress’. The proportion of CLA with a primary need of ‘Absent parenting’ has fallen from last year but this is likely due to the decrease in unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) who are predominantly looked after due to absent parenting. More information on CLA who were UASC is within the next section.


The majority of CLA have a primary need of ‘abuse or neglect’ - CLA on 31 March , 2018 to 2021, England

Number of CLA75,37078,14080,00080,850
N1. Abuse or neglect63%64%65%66%
N2. Child's disability3%3%3%3%
N3. Parental illness or disability3%3%3%3%
N4. Family in acute stress8%8%8%8%
N5. Family dysfunction15%14%14%14%
N6. Socially unacceptable behaviour1%1%1%1%
N7. Low income<1%<1%<1%<1%
N8. Absent parenting6%7%7%5%

Source: SSDA903

Legal status

Both the number and proportion of CLA under a care order continues to increase, whilst the number and proportion looked after under a voluntary agreement (under section 20 of the Children Act 1989) continue to decrease. This is following a family court ruling in 2015 on the use of voluntary agreements. 

The legal statuses for being looked after include:

  • a care order - a court order placing a child in the care or supervision of a local authority
  • 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
  • a placement order - a court order allowing a local authority to place a child for adoption
  • detained for child protection reasons
  • detained under youth justice legal statuses



The majority of CLA are placed in a foster placement, where an approved carer looks after the child - 71%. 

Foster placements can be with a relative or friend, or another carer. The proportion of CLA placed in foster placements with a relative or friend have increased very slightly up to 15%, from 14% last year and 13% in 2018. The proportion of CLA placed in foster placements with another carer (not a relative or friend) has decreased to 56%, down from 57% 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) - 14% - same as last year
  • with parents or other person with parental responsibility - 7% - same as last year
  • for adoption - 3% - same as last year
  • in the community, living independently, or in residential employment - 2% - down from 3% last year
  • in other residential settings (including care homes, schools or custody) - 2% - same as last year

The number of children placed in unregulated placements (i.e. semi-independent living or living independently) was 6,050, down 7% on the 6,500 children in these placements in 2020, but up from the 5,180 in 2018.

Placement stability is important for looked after children - 7 in 10 CLA had one placement in the year - this is slightly higher than last year but it is likely that the restrictions during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic reduced the number of placement moves.1 in 11 CLA had three or more placements, a slight decrease on previous years.

Locality of placements

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

Slightly fewer placements were inside the council boundary - 57% of all CLA placements, down from 58% last year and 59% in 2018. However, the majority of CLA were still placed within 20 miles of home - 74%. 21% were not placed within 20 miles of home and information for the remaining 6% was not known or not recorded. This could be because the home address was not known, the child is UASC, or for reasons of confidentiality for example children placed for adoption. 

As might be expected, location of placement varies by type of placement - 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 placements are most likely to be placed 20 miles or less from home.

Further information on CLA on 31 March can be found in the ‘A’ highlight tables accompanying this release.

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 down 20% on last year. UASC are a distinct group of CLA and currently represent around 5% of all CLA, down from 6% last year and in 2018. 

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 Croydon (where 31% of CLA were UASC) or Kent (where 18% of CLA were UASC), however, there is a voluntary national transfer scheme in place to enable the safe transfer of unaccompanied children between local authorities across the country to help ensure that unaccompanied children have access to services and support.

UASC are generally male - 92% and generally older - only 13% were aged under 16 years, down from 14% in 2020 and 19% in 2018. 87% of UASC have a primary need of 'Absent parenting'.

CLA starting during the year

The number of CLA starting during the year has fallen by 8% compared to last year, to 28,440. This decrease continues the recent trend of the falling numbers of CLA starting, from a peak in 2017, however it is likely there was such a large decrease this year due to the national lockdowns. Monthly figures in the chart below comparing the 2021 figures to the 3-year average from 2018 to 2020, show the number of CLA starting were consistently lower than we might usually expect, and were particularly low during periods when national lockdowns or restrictions were in place. 

The Vulnerable Children and Young People (VCYP) survey showed similar trends, however, it had suggested that the decrease in CLA starting during the year might have been greater. Figures from the two collections may not align due to methodological differences; only a subset of local authorities responded to the VCYP survey, and the survey data covers only 22 weeks of the year. Some local authorities have suggested that there can be a delay in adding start dates to their management information systems, so children may have been missed from the VCYP survey.

The decrease in numbers is seen across all age groups and children are quite evenly spread across the age groups.

 Almost half of CLA starting 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. 

A small proportion of CLA starting during the year were known to have previously had a permanence arrangement - 600 children. These children were known to have previously been adopted (1%), been the subject of a special guardianship order (1%), or been the subject of a residence order or child arrangement order (less than 0.5%).


The proportion of CLA starting in foster care continues to fall, as do CLA starting in placements in the community (which includes independent living). More children have been placed with parents, or other person with parental responsibility or placed in secure units, children's homes and semi-independent living (although much of the increase here is in semi-independent living) and in ‘other’ placements.

Further information on CLA starting can be found in the ‘C’ highlight tables accompanying this release.

Conviction and health outcomes

Figures relate to the 59,050 CLA on 31 March for at least 12 months in the year ending 31 March 2021 unless otherwise stated. Definitions and explanations of the information collected can be found in the collection guide.

Offending rates 

Information on offending rates is collected for children aged 10 years or over – 40,480 children in 2021. Of these, the proportion convicted or subject to youth cautions or youth conditional cautions during the year was 2% - down from 3% in 2020 and 2019,  and down from 4% in 2018. In 2021 this equates to just under 1,000 children. Numbers of children convicted may have been affected this year by court delays during the pandemic.

Males are more likely to offend than females - 3% of males were convicted or subject to youth cautions or youth conditional cautions during the year compared to 1% of females - a similar pattern to previous years.

Substance Misuse 

CLA identified as having a substance misuse problem – 3%, the same as last year and down slightly from 4% in 2018. 

Substance misuse is equally common in males and females at 3%. The proportion of males identified with substance misuse has decreased from 4% last year, for females it has stayed the same. In previous years we have seen substance misuse consistently be slightly more common in males than females.

An intervention was received for 44% of children who were identified as having a substance misuse problem, down from 45% last year and down from 46% in 2018.

Health and development outcomes

Most CLA are up to date with their health care with immunisations and health assessments: 

  • reported as being up to date with their immunisations – 86% - down slightly from 88% last year but up from 85% in 2018
  • reported as having had their annual health assessment – 91% - up slightly on 90% last year and up from 88% in 2018
  • under 5s reported as having development assessments up to date – 89% - up from 88% last year and up from 85% in 2018

However the proportion of CLA with their dental checks up to date has fallen significantly during the pandemic. In 2021, only 4 in 10 CLA had had their teeth checked by a dentist, a large decrease on the proportion in 2020. However, this is not unexpected given the difficulties faced by the whole English population accessing dental care during the pandemic.

Emotional and behavioural health (SDQ scores) 

For CLA aged 5 to 16 years (43,710 children), a SDQ score was reported for 80% of them. This is down from 81% last year, but still higher than the 78% reported in 2018. The average score reported was 13.7 - this is a fall from 14.1 reported last year and 14.2 reported in 2018. 

Of these 43,710 children:

  • 51% had ‘normal’ emotional and behavioural health (up from 49%)
  • 12% had ‘borderline’ scores (down from 13%)
  • 37% had scores which were a cause for concern (down from 38%).

In 2021, 40% of males had a score which was a cause for concern compared to 33% of females. Across almost all ages, males are more likely to have scores which were a cause for concern; except for children aged 15-years or 16-years. 

Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) scores 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. 

Children missing or away from placement without authorisation

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 1 in 10 CLA (10,880 children) in 2021 and there were 71,470 missing incidents.  This is an average (mean) of 6.6 missing incidents per child who went missing. The vast majority (90%) of missing incidents lasted for 2 days or less. 

Two thirds of missing incidents were from ‘secure units, children’s homes and semi-independent living arrangements’, however this is likely because more older children are placed in these settings and older children are more likely to go missing. 1 in 5 missing incidents were from foster placements and 1 in 10 were CLA who were living independently.

Away without authorisation incidents were reported for 2% of CLA (2,600 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.

Further information on CLA who were missing or who were away from placement without authorisation can be found in the ‘G’ highlight tables accompanying this release.

CLA ceasing during the year

The number of CLA ceasing during the year was down by 6% on last year and is at the lowest point since 2012. Like CLA starting, the numbers of CLA ceasing dropped during the first national lockdown in April-July 2020, but then recovered from September onwards to the levels we would expect. 

Reasons for ceasing to be looked after

The most common reason for children to leave care is to return home to their parents. Other common reasons for leaving care include moving into independent living with supportive accommodation , leaving as the subject of a special guardianship order or through adoption.

The average duration of the period of care for CLA ceasing during the year has been increasing slightly over recent years and has increased by a further 79 days in 2021 compared to last year. This could have been influenced by court delays during the pandemic meaning some children were in placements longer than they might have been previously.

In 2018, 35% of CLA ceasing had been looked after for under 6 months, in 2021 this decreased to 25%.

Further information on CLA ceasing during the year can be found in the ‘D’ highlight tables accompanying this release.

Adoptions and special guardianship orders (SGOs)

CLA who were adopted

The number of CLA who were adopted fell by 18% in 2021. The large decrease in CLA adopted this year is likely a result of the impact on court proceedings during the pandemic, where cases progressed more slowly or were paused.

Adoptions rose sharply from 2011 to a peak in 2015 but have since been falling. This decrease 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. 

On average, it takes 2 years and 2 months for a child to be adopted and this time has been increasing, up from 1 year and 11 months in 2018. In 2021, the average time between a child entering care and being placed for adoption was 1 year and 4 months, it then takes a further 10 months for an adoption order to be granted and the adoption to be completed.

The average age of a child at adoption has risen by 3 months to 3 years and 3 months, back to the same level as in 2018. 

CLA who left care as the subject of a special guardianship order (SGO)

CLA ceasing during the year as the subject of a SGO increased by 2% to 3,800. 1 in 7 CLA ceasing in 2021 left through a SGO, up slightly from last year. 

Most SGOs were granted to relatives or friends – 88% - the remainder were largely to other former foster carers – 10%. 

The average age at SGO increased by 3 months to 6 years and 1 month.

Further information on CLA ceasing due to adoption or through being the subject of a SGO can  be found in the ‘E’ highlight tables accompanying this release.

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 and is increasing across all ages except 17-year-olds. 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.

Proportion of care leavers the LA is ‘in touch’ with varies by age

Age of care leaverNumber of care leaversPercentage the LA in ‘in touch’ with
17 years62048047049077%74%74%73%
18 years10,42010,71011,19011,60094%94%95%95%
19 to 21 years28,49029,91031,26032,50088%89%90%91%
19 years10,09010,47010,77011,28091%92%93%94%
20 years9,43010,03010,46010,76089%89%90%92%
21 years8,9809,41010,04010,46084%86%86%88%

Source: SSDA903


Information is collected on the activity that most accurately reflects the young person's main activity status on or around their birthday and figures are in the table below.

For 19- to 21- year olds 29% were in education (6% higher education, 22% education other than higher education); 41% were not in education, employment or training (NEET), compared to around 12% of all young people aged 19 to 21 years old (Source: Labour force survey data, reapportioned so time period and ages are comparable with the CLA methodology). Note that activity information was known for 93% of 19-21-year-olds in 2021, an increase from 91% in 2020.

Activity of former care leavers in 2021

17-year-olds18-year-olds19- to 21- year-olds
Number of care leavers49011,60032,500
Percentage male58%64%63%
Percentage in education41%52%29%
Percentage in training or employment10%14%23%
Percentage who were not in education, employment or training24%30%41%
Percentage whose activity was not known25%5%7%

Accommodation of former care leavers 

As former care leavers get older, they tend to transition into more independent living arrangements. The most common living arrangements were:

  • For 17-year-old care leavers 49% were living with parents, 6% were in semi-independent transitional accommodation and 5% were in custody (however, for 24% the information was not known).
  • For 18-year-old care leavers 32% were in semi-independent transitional accommodation, 19% were with former foster carers, 12% were living with parents or relatives and 11% were in independent living . Information was not known for 4% of young people.
  • For 19- to 21-year-old care leavers 36% were living independently, 17% 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 7% 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 have been increasing and are in the table.

Proportion of care leavers in suitable accommodation increases

Age of care leaverAccommodation suitability2018201920202021
Accommodation considered suitable68%64%65%68%
Accommodation considered unsuitable11%13%10%7%
No information22%24%24%25%
Accommodation considered suitable90%90%91%92%
Accommodation considered unsuitable5%5%5%4%
No information5%5%5%4%
19-to 21-year-oldsTotal100%100%100%100%
Accommodation considered suitable84%85%85%88%
Accommodation considered unsuitable7%6%6%5%
No information9%9%9%7%

Source: SSDA903

“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 to 30% in 2021 from 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 60% (2,120 young people) - up from 58% last year and 55% in 2018.

Further information on care leavers can be found in the ‘F’ highlight tables accompanying this release.

Care leavers who were UASC

For former care leavers aged 18-years and older, an increasing proportion were UASC. This increase is due to the peak in the number of UASC around 2015 moving through the age groups and who are now care leavers.

Increasing proportions of care leavers are UASC

Proportion of care leavers who were UASC
Age of care leaver2018201920202021
17 years7%7%6%5%
18 years24%24%27%27%
19 years20%24%24%27%
20 years15%20%24%24%
21 years12%15%20%24%

Source: SSDA903

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 2021. The data set ‘Time series of children looked after data - 1994 to 2021 - NATIONAL’ 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, for 2019 and earlier, can be found on GOV.UK at: Statistics - looked after children.


This release was published on this platform for the first time in 2020 and is a 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. Email:

Help and support


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

Accredited official 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)