July 2022

Vulnerable children and young people survey

This is the latest dataManagement information
Published

Introduction

Summary of local authority survey in England to help understand the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on children’s social care.

Use this document for the complete series of data collected through the survey. Figures may differ to previously published documents due to late submissions and corrections to the data returned. 


Headline facts and figures - 2022

Number of children

The number of Children Looked After (CLA) between May 2020 and July 2022 was on average 3% higher than the same time in 2019-20.

Between May and December 2020, the number of children on Child Protection Plans (CPP) was on average 2% higher than 2019-20. From January 2021 onwards the survey reported a lower number of children on a CPP compared to 2019-20 and continued to do so.

Contact in the last four weeks

Between May 2020 and July 2022 a large proportion of CLA, children on a CPP and other Children in Need (CIN) had been in contact with a social worker in the last four weeks. 

For children on a CPP, this proportion remained above 90% in all waves of the survey. For CLA and other CIN, the average proportions were 67% and 61% respectively.

Social worker and residential care worker availability

Throughout the survey, a higher proportion of residential care staff were reported as unavailable to work due to coronavirus (COVID-19) than social workers. 

The proportion of staff unavailable to work due to COVID-19 peaked at the start of the survey in May/June 2020, when 27% and 13% of local authorities reported more than 10% of their residential care staff and social workers unavailable respectively. Generally, the proportions declined over the course of the survey and in July 2022 were 4% and 1% respectively.

Referrals

The number of referrals to children’s social care services reported in the survey between May 2020 and July 2022 were around 9% lower than an average of the same weeks during 2017-20.

In May 2020, the number of referrals was 16% lower than average, however this fell to its lowest point in January/February 2021, when referrals were 23% lower than usual.

The number of referrals started to return closer to usual levels from May 2021, and by July 2022 they were just 5% lower than average.

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Total number of children supported by local authority children's social care

Local authorities were asked to report the total number of Children Looked After (CLA), children on a Child Protection Plan (CPP) and other Children in Need (CIN). The number of other Children in Need (CIN) has not been included in this report due to data quality issues. 

Throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the number of CLA fluctuated but was on average 3% higher than the same time in 2019-20. Data from the ‘2020 to 2021 and 2021 to 2022 Children looked after in England including adoptions’ releases also recorded a higher number of CLA; the number of CLA was 1% higher than 2019-20 at 31st March 2021 and 3% higher at 31st March 2022.

The number of children on a CPP also fluctuated throughout the pandemic. During the first COVID-19 wave (March to May 2020), the number of children on a CPP was the same as 2019-20 before rising to 2% higher during the onset of the second COVID-19 wave between September and December 2020. From January 2021 onwards, the survey reported a lower number of children on a CPP (2% lower on average) until it ended in July 2022. Data from the ‘Characteristics of Children in Need’ publications also reported a lower number of children on a CPP; the number of children on a CPP was 3% lower than 2019-20 on 31st March 2021 and 1% lower on 31st March 2022.

Please note that comparisons from April 2021 to previous survey waves should be made with caution due to the comparator changing from March 2020 to April 2019 in April 2021. Therefore, while data up until March 2021 is compared to data from one year previous, data from April 2021 onwards is compared to data from two years previous (i.e., April 2019 to March 2020). Given over recent years the total number of CLA has been gradually increasing and the total number of children on a CPP has been gradually decreasing, the data received in the survey may be a continuation of those trends; using an older comparator in April 2021 onwards may make the difference appear larger than it did in March 2020.

Contact with children supported by local authority children's social care

Contact is defined as communication that has taken place with the child/young person, including both face to face visits and remote communication, such as telephone calls or other types of messaging.

Local authorities were initially asked how many cases had been reviewed and how many children had been contacted by their social worker in the last two weeks. These questions were removed from the survey from August 2020 because findings remained stable, face to face visits were resuming and carried out within statutory timescales, and to reduce the burden on local authorities. A summary of responses from these questions can be found in previous publications.

Throughout the three waves of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, a large proportion of CLA, children on a CPP and other CIN had been in contact with a social worker in the last four weeks.

For children on a CPP, this proportion remained above 90% in all waves of the survey. For CLA and other CIN, the proportion saw a gradual decline over the collection period from 74% and 65% respectively at the beginning of data collection during the first wave of the pandemic, to 63% and 57% respectively in July 2022 when all restrictions had eased.

The frequency of visits are determined on a case-by-case basis; therefore, not all children should be contacted every four weeks, and it may be expected that the proportions declined as restrictions eased. 

In one of the open text questions, we asked local authorities to describe the steps that they were taking to safeguard children that they were not in contact with.  At the start of the pandemic (May-July 2020), to safeguard the children with a social worker that local authorities were not able to see face to face and who were not attending school, local authorities made changes to working practices and carried out various activities.  For example, this included risk assessing all cases and working with other agencies to ensure welfare checks were taking place. During that time local authorities were contacting some children virtually and more frequently than their plan.  To stay in touch, alternative forms of communication, for example telephone calls and WhatsApp were used and some local authorities provided children and families with new technology to enable this. In the following waves of the survey (July-September 2020), the working arrangements and recovery plans that local authorities described involved moving from a crisis response towards a ‘business-as-usual - living with coronavirus (COVID-19)’ approach. Local authorities were reverting to their usual assessment and planning processes, they continued to assess the required frequency of contact with cases and took a “blended” approach to visits which comprised of both virtual and face to face contact. 

As schools re-opened (September 2020), some local authorities described how they were working more closely with schools to monitor attendance and to manage their contact with children with a social worker. As varying tiers of restrictions were introduced (Autumn and Winter 2020), local authorities said they reviewed all of their cases again to see whether contact should take place face-to-face or virtually. Frequency and modality of visits depended on case type, but most respondents said they were trying to continue with face-to-face visits as much as possible. Where virtual visits were used, respondents said they were quality assuring and scrutinising the use of these arrangements.

As coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions were lifted and schools re-opened (March 2021), local authorities reported that children with a social worker were being seen face to face and within statutory timescales. Respondents continued to report business as usual over the Summer and Autumn periods in 2021. In December 2021 with the emergence of the coronavirus (COVID-19) Omicron variant, local authorities said that they were revisiting their working practices and some said that they were reverting to the same arrangements they used earlier in the pandemic to manage risk and protect children but most local authorities said they were developing plans to prioritise face to face contact with children.  From the Spring (2022), across all of the subsequent survey waves, local authorities generally described a business-as-usual practice in their open text responses with contacts with children taking place face to face and within statutory timescales.

Children's Social Care Workforce

Local authorities were asked about the availability of social workers and residential care staff. It should be noted that some local authorities have small residential care workforces and therefore a small change in staff availability may result in large changes in the proportion of staff unavailable to work due to coronavirus (COVID-19). The question was amended from June 2020 to ask about local authority employed residential care staff. Local authorities were previously reporting 0% if they do not directly employ residential care staff. As such the sample consisted of fewer local authorities from June 2020, and the figures from then onwards are not directly comparable to earlier waves.

Throughout the survey, a higher proportion of residential care staff were unavailable to work due to COVID-19 than social workers. The pattern of staff unavailable to work generally followed the case rates in each COVID-19 wave. 

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of local authorities reporting more than 10% of their residential care staff and social workers unavailable peaked at 27% and 13% respectively in May/June 2020. During the second wave of the pandemic, the proportions peaked again at 22% and 6% respectively in November 2020/January 2021. The final peak occurred during the third wave of the pandemic when 23% and 11% of residential care staff and social workers were unavailable to work due to COVID-19 in January 2022. Since then, the proportions fell to lows of 4% and 1% respectively in July 2022.

Across the different waves of coronavirus (COVID-19), local authorities reported issues with workforce availability (due to sickness and self-isolating) but this was generally reported by a minority of local authorities. Local authorities in their open text responses were more likely to describe unprecedented demands on the workforce and say that workers were, for example, experiencing stress, tiredness and anxiety. 

In the December 2021 survey wave, we asked local authorities to tell us about the main challenges facing them in the next three months. Workforce issues were mentioned by some local authorities at that time. Local authorities described their concerns about potential impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) Omicron variant and concerns about the drawn-out nature of the pandemic and how this was impacting of workforce resilience. 

In January (2022), in the open text question we specifically asked local authorities to describe any workforce challenges that they were experiencing. At that time most of the local authorities that provided a response said that workforce challenges (linked to sickness and self-isolating) were abating. 

In subsequent survey waves local authorities continued to describe some of their workforce challenges, but these were related to wider issues, for example, social worker recruitment and agency worker pay rather than coronavirus (COVID-19) related workforce shortages.

Referrals to Children's Social Care services

In the first two waves of the survey, local authorities were asked to report the number of referrals to children’s social care services they received in the last week. From the third wave, local authorities were asked for the number of referrals to children’s social care services the week before last to account for the lag in reporting that affected waves 1 and 2. As such, the figures from Wave 3 onwards are not directly comparable to Waves 1 and 2.

From Wave 3 onwards local authorities were also asked to report the sources of their referrals. 

In each wave, we have calculated the difference to the ‘usual’ level of referrals at that point in the year. For the total number of referrals, the ‘usual’ level is defined as the average of the same week in each year between 2017-20. For each referral source, the ‘usual’ level is defined as the same week in 2020.

The number of referrals to children’s social care services reported in the survey were on average around 9% lower than usual. Overall, it is estimated that there have been around 99,000 fewer referrals between May 2020 and July 2022 compared to 2017-20; this estimate takes into account local authorities that did not respond and weeks not covered by the survey. These estimates are broadly supported by the ‘Characteristics of children in need 2020 to 2021’ publication which found that referrals between April 2020 – March 2021 were 7% lower than the previous year. In the latest ‘Characteristics of children in need 2021 to 2022’ publication, referrals between April 2021 and March 2022 returned to pre-pandemic levels and were 1.1% higher than in 2019-20.  

During the first wave of the pandemic in late May 2020, referrals were 16% lower than usual. At this time, schools were closed to all children except those who were classed as vulnerable, or whose parents were key workers, and thus referrals from schools were 76% lower than usual. Referrals from health services, individuals and other sources were also lower than usual at 18%, 10% and 5% lower respectively, whereas referrals from police were 16% higher.

Compared to the same time in 2017-20, referrals reached their lowest point in January-February 2021. This coincided with a second period of restrictions where schools were closed in January and February, after reopening in September 2020. Although referrals from all sources were lower than usual at this time, referrals from schools saw the biggest difference and were 57% lower.

The number of referrals began trending towards usual levels after the second wave of the pandemic ended in April 2021; referrals were around 4% lower than usual between May 2021 and July 2022.

Difference in referrals received from each source compared to the 3-year average of the same week across 2017 to 2020

WaveReferrals from individualsReferrals from schoolsReferrals from health servicesReferrals from policeReferrals from other sources
Wave 3 (18 - 24 May 2020)-10%-76%-18%16%-5%
Wave 4 (01 - 07 June 2020)-2%-74%-5%16%-7%
Wave 5 (15 - 21 June 2020)-2%-65%-8%13%-11%
Wave 6 (29 June - 05 July 2020)2%-58%2%19%-10%
Wave 7 (13 - 19 July 2020)11%-52%-3%12%-13%
Wave 8 (10 - 16 August 2020)*26%-29%4%29%-3%
Wave 9 (24 - 30 August 2020)*8%-71%2%12%-4%
Wave 10 (07 - 13 September 2020)3%-21%4%4%-13%
Wave 11 (21 - 27 September 2020)1%-15%7%6%-4%
Wave 12 (05 - 11 October 2020)-9%-3%-10%1%-11%
Wave 13 (19 - 25 October 2020)*0%100%-7%-2%-3%
Wave 14 (02 - 08 November 2020)-10%-23%-9%-8%-13%
Wave 15 (16 - 22 November 2020)-11%-5%-6%2%-6%
Wave 16 (30 November - 06 December 2020)-16%-9%7%4%-10%
Wave 17 (28 December 2020 - 03 January 2021)*26%-30%19%29%22%
Wave 18 (11 - 17 January 2021)-9%-60%-6%-13%-10%
Wave 19 (25 - 31 January 2021)-21%-57%-8%-10%-9%
Wave 20 (08 - 14 February 2021)-5%-56%-7%-11%-15%
Wave 21 (22 - 28 February 2021)-5%-41%-6%0%-18%
Wave 22 (08 - 14 March 2021)-7%-23%-9%-3%-11%
Wave 23 (05 - 11 April 2021)*-15%-63%-7%-1%-20%
Wave 24 (03 - 09 May 2021)-5%3%3%0%-10%
Wave 25 (31 May - 06 June 2021)*-14%-37%-9%-5%-25%
Wave 26 (05 - 11 July 2021)-7%-5%-9%1%-10%
Wave 27 (06 - 12 September 2021)-3%27%-11%8%-13%
Wave 28 (04 - 10 October 2021)-17%-7%-21%0%-8%
Wave 29 (01 - 07 November 2021)-18%9%-1%-2%-18%
Wave 30 (29 November - 05 December 2021)-6%-7%0%-1%-11%
Wave 31 (20-26 December 2021)*9%-55%3%5%-7%
Wave 32 (03-09 Janauary 2022)*-27%-19%-14%-14%-29%
Wave 33 (17-23 January 2022)-16%-4%-1%0%-18%
Wave 34 (31 January - 06 February 2022)-8%5%-6%11%-6%
Wave 35 (28 February - 06 March 2022)-14%-1%-12%-3%-16%
Wave 36 (28 March - 03 April 2022)0%-13%-7%3%-15%
Wave 37 (02 - 08 May 2022)-6%-6%-3%1%-9%
Wave 38 (06 - 12 June 2022)17%-8%-2%13%-7%
Wave 39 (04 - 10 July 2022)-9%-1%-16%-1%-11%

Footnotes

  1. Percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number
  2. The survey was collected on a fortnightly basis between May 2020 and March 2021, a monthly basis between April and December 2021, fortnightly in January 2022 and then returned to monthly from February 2022. There was no collection during August 2021.
  3. See Methodology for the number of local authorities that responded to the question per wave.
  4. The figures from 18 May onwards are not directly comparable to earlier waves.
  5. *These comparisons should be treated with caution due to the timing of school holidays from year to year.
  6. Survey data for some local authorities was removed due to known data quality issues. Comparator data for these LAs was also removed.
  7. Comparator data was only included for local authorities that responded to each wave.
  8. Other sources include local authority services, legal agencies and children’s centres.

Some local authorities used the general open text question (on trends, challenges and good practice) to tell us about the volumes and types of referrals that they were receiving. Between May to September 2020 when schools were mostly closed, many local authorities anticipated a spike in referrals when schools re-opened and provided examples of actions they were taking to predict, plan for and mitigate the impact of this, such as increasing capacity of front-line teams and providing targeted help to prevent escalations. 

Local authorities again expected a spike in referrals in April 2021 following the second wave of the pandemic, and provided further examples of mitigating actions, such as providing support earlier and working with schools to manage demand.

During the third wave of the pandemic (December 2021) local authorities again expected an increase in demand due to the pandemic but also due to the high-profile child death cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson that were reported in the media. At that time, local authorities said that they were planning and forecasting for referrals based on what they saw in the early stages of the pandemic. 

Some local authorities used the open text question to describe the types of referrals that they were receiving. An increase in cases involving domestic abuse featured in most waves of the survey. In earlier survey waves, local authorities described an increase in the complexity of cases that they were seeing. Examples of increased case complexity included: elevated mental health issues amongst parents and children, increases in cases involving young people self-harming, more cases involving neglect and emotional abuse, increased cases involving non-accidental injury, more cases where there were parental issues relating to alcohol and mental health, increases in the number of new-born children presenting in care proceedings, more referrals where the family were in acute crisis and escalations of risks in cases that are already open to children’s social care. 

In later survey waves (from June 2021) some local authorities said that issues to do with young people’s mental health and social/emotional needs were common features in the referrals that they were receiving. In their responses, some local authorities provided an explanation for the increase in case complexity. Some suggested that it was explained by the reduced availability of some support services at that time and that some services that were having to be provided virtually were not able to adequately support children and families. Some felt that the increase in case complexity was linked to the amount of time that families were spending together, leading to a more pressurised home environment.

Children who started to be looked after

The number of children starting to be looked after should be treated with caution because some local authorities reported 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. This means that the survey is underestimating the number of children starting to be looked after. 

The ‘Children looked after in England including adoption’ statistics should be used where possible. In the first two waves, local authorities were asked to report the number of children that started to be looked after in the last week. From Wave 3 local authorities were asked for the number of looked after children starting the week before last to account for the lag in reporting that affected waves 1 and 2. As such, the figures from Wave 3 onwards are not directly comparable to Waves 1 and 2.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the number of children starting to be looked after fluctuated, but on average the survey reported around 27% fewer children starting to be looked after than the 3-year average of the same week across 2017 to 2020. However, more reliable data from the 'Children looked after in England, including adoptions' publications show that during 2020-21, the number of children starting to be looked after fell by only 8% compared to 2019-20 and in 2021-22 the number was around the same as 2019-20.

In the general open text questions (on trends, challenges, and good practice) in later waves of the survey some local authorities reported that they were experiencing an increase in the overall numbers of CLA. Local authorities explained that whilst the numbers of new entrants to care remain unchanged (in some cases smaller), the number of children exiting care had stalled. Reasons given for this included the lack of direct work with families and services in support of reunifications and delays in court hearings. In the October 2021 survey, in the open text question we asked local authorities to tell us about any reductions in the number of children starting to be looked after, reasons for any reductions and any risks and mitigations for this. Of the local authorities that responded, the most common explanation for the fall in children starting to be looked after were linked to specific activities within the local authority to divert children from entering care. For example, new edge of care work and practice models that prioritise children remaining with their parents where it is safe to do so.

Annex A

Number of referrals received in the survey compared to the same weeks in 2017-20

DateTotal number of referralsAverage referrals 2017-20
27 April – 03 May 20209, 34011, 190
11 – 17 May 20208, 96012, 750
18 – 24 May 20209, 87011, 780
01 – 07 June 202010, 67012, 470
15 – 21 June 202011, 09013, 330
29 June – 05 July 202011, 51013, 000
13 – 19 July 202010, 91012, 070
10 – 16 August 2020*10, 5409, 430
24 – 30 August 2020*9, 0808, 940
07 – 13 September 202011, 04011, 770
21 – 27 September 202012, 07012, 370
05 – 11 October 202011, 71012, 330
19 – 25 October 2020*11, 18010, 260
02 – 08 November 202010, 50012, 110
16 – 22 November 202011, 70012, 290
30 November – 06 December 202011, 11011, 610
28 December 2020 – 03 January 2021*5, 1304, 170
11 – 17 January 20219, 11011, 610
25 – 31 January 20219, 51012, 300
08 – 14 February 20219, 35012, 160
22 – 28 February 20219, 73011, 440
08 - 14 March 202110, 80012, 200
05 – 11 April 2021*8, 31010, 000
03 – 09 May 202110, 77011, 000
31 May – 06 June 2021*8, 2309, 850
05 – 11 July 202110, 93011, 610
06 – 12 September 20218, 3708, 380
04 – 10 October 20218, 9609, 760
01 – 07 November 20218, 3508, 870
29 November – 05 December 20218, 5609, 060
20 – 26 December 2021*6, 4007, 060
03 - 09 January 2022*6, 9608, 640
17 - 23 January 20229, 3009, 930
31 January – 06 February 202210, 40010, 290
28 February – 06 March 20228, 5609, 240
02 – 08 May 20228, 6609, 060
06 -12 June 20229, 2809, 110
04 – 10 July 20228, 6809, 170

Notes: 

  • Data from previous waves of the survey can be found in earlier publications
  • *These comparisons should be treated with caution due to the timing of school holidays from year to year.
  • Survey data for some local authorities was removed due to known data quality issues. Comparator data for these LAs was also removed.
  • Comparator data was only included for LAs that responded to each wave.
  • The survey was collected on a fortnightly basis between May 2020 and March 2021, a monthly basis between April and December 2021, fortnightly in January 2022 and then returned to monthly from February 2022. There was no collection during August 2021.
  • Read methodology documentation for the number of local authorities that responded to the question per wave.

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Management information describes aggregate information collated and used in the normal course of business to inform operational delivery, policy development or the management of organisational performance. It is usually based on administrative data but can also be a product of survey data. The terms administrative data and management information are sometimes used interchangeably.

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