Methodology

Characteristics of children in need

Published

Data collection and background

The children in need census is an annual child-level data collection by the Department for Education (DfE), which records individual assessment information and child characteristics for each child that has been referred to children’s social care services.

Data is collected from each local authority in England. This data is used by DfE to calculate local-and national-level information on the numbers of referrals and assessments carried out by children’s social care services. The numbers of children in need and children subject to a child protection plan are also calculated.

150 out of 151 local authorities provided a return for the 2020 to 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 totals for England, Inner London and London. 

The latest children in need census captured child-level information on children referred to and assessed by children’s social care services within the 12-month period 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021. The census includes any child referred to children’s social care services within the year and also any cases open at 1 April 2020 where local authorities were providing a service, for example:

  • active case work
  • making regular payments
  • where funding or on-going services such as respite care has been agreed
  • maintaining a child with care and accommodation
  • a commitment to review the case at a predetermined date
  • maintaining a child’s name on a register that ensures the child and family receives targeted information or other special consideration

Children in need include children who were the subject of children in need plans, children who were the subject of child protection plans, looked after children, young carers and disabled children.

Children in need include unborn children and young people aged 18 years and over who continue to require support from children’s social care services.

The 2020 to 2021 census was the 12th full year of the children in need census. A collection covering a reduced 6-month period was carried out in 2008 to 2009 to collect information from the 1 October 2008 to 31 March 2009; however, following this a full year collection was introduced from 2009 to 2010.

A number of local authorities were unable to provide a complete, clean children in need return in the first full census in 2009 to 2010. On completion of the collection, a DfE review of the children in need census was carried out alongside the Munro review which resulted in some data items being removed from the 2010 to 2011 collection onward. 

For 2008 to 2009 and earlier, information on referrals, assessments and child protection plans was collected through the aggregate ‘Child Protection and Referrals’ (CPR3) return. The introduction of the children in need census meant the CPR3 was discontinued after 2009. Both the CPR and census were collected for 2008 to 2009. However, since the census covered the final 6 months of the year only, the CPR3 (which covered the full year) is regarded as the more complete data source for 2008 to 2009.

The information collected in the CPR and census returns is similar. However, for the CPR local authorities calculated indicators and returned aggregate level information to DfE. For the census, child level data is returned by local authorities and indicators are calculated by the DfE. Figures derived from the two collections are therefore not directly comparable.

The data items collected in the children in need census include child identifiers and characteristics along with the dates of any referrals, assessments, section 47 enquiries, and child protection plans and reviews.

More information on the collection is available in the children in need census guide.

Children in need data is linked to children looked after data and the national pupil database (NPD). This linked data is used to produce outcomes statistics (for example key stages 2 and 4 attainment) for children in need and children looked after, which are published in March each year.

Data quality and cleaning

Data  cleaning

The children in need census data is collected through the DfE COLLECT (collections online for learning, education, children and teachers) system. 

Local authorities upload their data to COLLECT whereupon a series of validation rules are run to identify any errors and queries with the data. Local authorities resolve these errors and clean their data; the department provides help and support to local authorities throughout this period. Each local authority can add notes to their data return to highlight any year-on-year changes or explain any issues with data quality. These notes are examined by the department during the quality assurance process and, where applicable, followed up with the individual local authorities. 

Once all errors and queries have been resolved or explained, local authorities submit a final return by the end of July. A full list of validation rules for checking queries and errors is available in the children in need census guide to submitting data.

DfE then carry out further quality assurance of the data so that we can make an assessment of the data quality and highlight any issues to users. 

Validations checks are built into COLLECT which highlight where key measures (for example the number of referrals) have increased or decreased between census years. Where changes exceed the threshold the DfE requests local authorities check their data and confirm that they are correct. It should be noted however, that a large change between years does not necessarily imply the information provided is inaccurate. For example, it could be due to changes in local practice.

Specific local authorities

150 out of 151 local authorities provided a return for the 2020 to 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 totals for England, Inner London and London. 

Re-referrals for the year ending 31 March 2020 exclude Dorset and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole local authorities due to the reorganisation of these areas from 1 April 2019. Re-referral information is available for these reorganised local authorities from 2021 onwards.

Data flows

The number of children who were the subject of a child protection plan at 31 March 2021 does not equal:

  • the number at 31 March in the previous year, plus 
  • the number started in the year, minus 
  • those ceased in the year

The same applies for the numbers of children in need. 

Possible reasons are:

  • better data quality over time as local authority systems further improve on returning the census data. For example, where a local authority finds children that had been incorrectly omitted in a previous return, but includes them in the latest census.
  • the census is a snapshot taken each year and local authorities do not have the facility to amend previous year’s data returns. Therefore, it reflects the position at that point in time and any retrospective changes cannot be included in the following years data return as they fall outside the collection period.

Referrals resulting in no further action and children assessed not to be in need

There is considerable variation between local authorities in the number of referrals which resulted in no further action without an assessment taking place. Some local authorities record no cases of referrals resulting in no further action, whereas some record more than 1,000 cases. This is likely to be explained by differences in procedures.

Similarly, there is considerable variation between local authorities in the number of referrals which resulted in assessment where the child was assessed as not in need and no further action was taken. Again, this is likely to be explained by differences in local practice.

Factors identified at the end of assessment

Factors identified at the end of assessment were collected and reported for the first time in 2014; however, data was only published at national level due to concerns about its quality. Since 2015 data has been published at local authority level, with coverage continuing to improve: in 2021 79% of assessments had factors recorded, compared to 75% in 2015. 

In addition, local authorities have been encouraged to report all relevant factors identified at the end of assessment, which may account for some of the increases seen in recent years and means the majority of children have more than one factor recorded for each episode of need.

This should be taken into consideration when assessing time series assessment factor data.

New physical and sexual abuse factors (codes 18B, 18C, 19B and 19C)

Information on child on child and adult on child physical and sexual abuse was collected and reported for the first time in 2021. Previously the only information collected was whether the abuse was physical or sexual.

A number of local authorities reported difficulties in collecting the new data items, with more than 20 (out of 151) unable to collect the data at all. A further 50 returned a combination of the old and new codes and the remaining local authorities returned the new codes only.

The old physical and sexual abuse codes (18A and 19A) have therefore been included in 2020 to 2021 data to provide a more complete account of this category of assessment.

Definitions

Detailed information is available in the children in need census guide to submitting data.

Referrals

A referral is defined for the purposes of the children in need census as ‘a request for services to be provided by children’s social care services’. This is in respect of a case where the child is not previously known to the council, or where the case was previously open but is now closed. A referral should not be recorded if there is a case for the child already open. A referral can be made by a professional from one of many different agencies (typically in the health and education sectors) but the term as used here is a broad one which encompasses referrals from any source, including self-referrals.

A referral may result in: 

  • an assessment of the child’s need
  • the provision of information or advice
  • referral to another agency
  • or no further action.

If a child is referred more than once in the year then each referral is counted in the figures in this publication. 

Referrals leading to no further action

On receipt of a referral the local authority has one working day to decide what further action needs to be taken. If further action is needed, then an assessment of the child’s needs is carried out. However, in some cases it may be that the referral can be resolved by providing some additional information or advice, referring the child to another agency or that no further action at all is needed. These cases are counted as referrals leading to no further action. Thresholds, for deciding if further action is required, can vary from one local authority to another.

Assessments

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

An assessment is undertaken for any child who has been referred to children’s social care services with a request that services be provided. Statutory guidance ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ was revised in 2013 (and again in 2018) giving local authorities more flexibility when assessing children. Previously, local authorities carried out an initial assessment within 10 working days and (where needed) a more in-depth core assessment within 35 working days. All local authorities now carry out a single continuous assessment within 45 working days.

Primary need at assessment

When a child is assessed following a referral, the practitioner determines the child’s primary need at the first assessment. Only one primary need can be reported at this point and is selected from a hierarchical list provided in the children in need census guide (section 4.5, pages 36 to 38). Where multiple needs are identified, the need highest in the list is reported.

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. 

Children in need

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

Children in need include children who were the subject of children in need plans, children who were the subject of child protection plans, looked after children, young carers and disabled children.

Children in need include unborn children and young people aged 18 years and over who continue to require support from children’s social care services.

Section 47 enquiries and initial child protection conferences 

If a local authority identifies there is reasonable cause to suspect the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm, it will carry out an assessment under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 to determine if it needs to take steps to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child. If concerns are substantiated and the child is judged to be at continuing risk of harm then an initial child protection conference should be convened within 15 working days. The conference will result in a decision on whether or not the child will become the subject of a child protection plan.

Child protection plan and reviews

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. Once a child becomes the subject of a child protection plan, their plan should be reviewed within the first 3 months and then at intervals of not more than 6 months.

Children who cease to be the subject of a child protection plan

A child will cease to be the subject of a plan if: 

  1. it is judged that the child is no longer at continuing risk of significant harm requiring safeguarding by means of a child protection plan (for example the risk of harm has been reduced by action taken through the child protection plan; the child and family’s circumstances have changed; or re-assessment of the child and family indicates that a child protection plan is not necessary). Under these circumstances, only a child protection review conference can decide that the child being the subject of a plan is no longer necessary;
  2. the child and family have moved permanently to another local authority area. In such cases, the receiving local authority should convene a child protection conference within 15 working days of being notified of the move, only after this event may a child cease to be the subject of a plan in respect of the original local authority’s plan;
  3. the child has reached 18 years of age, has died or has permanently left the UK.

Data processing

Episodes of need

Specific information on the number of children in need and episodes of need is not collected in the census. Instead, these measures are derived using a combination of data items collected in the census, of which the key items are: 

  • referral date
  • referral NFA (flag identifying whether the referral resulted in no further action)
  • reason for closure code

A child can start or end an episode of need more than once during the year, but they should not have over-lapping episodes. For example, if a child began an episode of need in May 2020 which ended in August 2020 and the same child began another episode of need in December 2020 and was still in need at 31 March 2021, this would count as two starts, one end and one count at 31 March 2021. 

The method used to calculate the episodes of need included in this publication is outlined in the table below. Equivalent child-level measures are calculated by counting a child once, regardless of how many episodes of need they had during the year.

MeasureDefinition
Episodes of need

Referrals to children’s social care services, excluding cases where:

a. The referral resulted in no further action; or

b. The only activity recorded against the referral was an assessment (there was no Section 47 enquiry or child protection plan) and the reason for closure was that the case was closed after assessment with no further action (using closure code RC8).

Episodes of need starting during the yearA count of episodes of need as defined above starting during the collection year, where the referral date is within the collection year, 1 April to 31 March.

Episodes of need ending during the year

 

A count of episodes of need as defined above ending during the collection year, where the closure date is within the collection year, 1 April to 31 March.
Episodes of need at any point during the year 

A count of episodes of need as defined above at any point during the collection year, 1 April to 31 March.

These episodes do not necessarily relate to episodes that were open throughout whole of the year and instead show episodes that were open at some point during the collection year.

Episodes of need at 31 March

A count of episodes of need as defined above where the referral date is on or before 31 March of the collection year and there is no closure date.

Since a child should not have more than one episode of need open at the same time, the number of episodes at 31 March should equal the number of children in need at 31 March.

Children awaiting assessment or who do not require an assessment

A count of episodes of need at 31 March (as defined above) where the child is awaiting assessment or who do not require an assessment . 

Figures for children in need at 31 March include children awaiting assessment and those that do not require an assessment. 

Children who will later be deemed to not require an assessment may include cases where the child has transferred into the local authority and an assessment has already been completed, family court related work, adoption support, short breaks and cancelled episodes.

In some cases the child will go on to be assessed as not in need. In 2021, children awaiting assessment or who do not require an assessment represented 3.6% of children in need at 31 March. 

This measure is intended to give a more complete account of the overall children in need population.

Referrals and assessments

The methodology used to calculate referrals and assessments is outlined in the table below.

MeasureDefinition
Number of referralsA count of referrals, where the referral date is within the collection year 1 April to 31 March. 
Number of assessments completedA count of assessments completed, where the assessment authorisation date is within the collection year 1 April to 31 March.

Duration of assessments

 

The duration of an assessment is calculated as the time in working days between the assessment start date and the assessment end date.
Referrals within 12 months of a previous referral (re-referrals)

A count of the number of referrals within 12 months of a previous referral.

Re-referrals are calculated based on data from the latest and previous collection years, as follows:

Select the referrals that occurred between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021 in the 2020 to 2021 data.

Select the referrals that occurred between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020 in the 2019 to 2020 data, but remove any duplicated children, keeping the latest referral for the child.

The two datasets are combined and the difference in days between consecutive pairs of referral dates is counted by comparing referral 1 to referral 2, referral 2 to referral 3, etc. The referral is added to the count of re-referrals if the difference between the pair of dates is 365 days or less.

Referrals resulting in no further actionA count of referrals in the collection year 1 April to 31 March where the referral resulted in no further action. Referrals resulting in no further action are not included in the other children in need population measures.
Assessed not to be in need

A count of referrals within the collection year 1 April to 31 March, where:

  • The referral does not end in no further action before an assessment has taken place 
  • The referral has an assessment, but no further activity such as a child protection plan;

and

  • The referral has reason for closure recorded as ‘RC8, case closed after assessment, no further action’.
Factors identified at the end of assessmentA count of factors identified at the end of assessment for each episode where the assessment authorisation date is within the collection year 1 April to 31 March. Duplicate factors are removed so that an individual factor is counted only once against an episode.  

 

 

Section 47 enquiries and initial child protection conferences

The method used to calculate section 47 enquiries and initial child protection conferences is outlined in the table below. 

Equivalent child-level measures are calculated by counting a child once, regardless of how many section 47 enquiries or initial child protection conferences they had during the year.

MeasureDefinition
Section 47 enquiries in the yearA count of section 47 enquiries where the section 47 actual start date is present and within the collection year 1 April to 31 March. 
Initial child protection conferences taking place in the year

Figures are calculated using data from the section 47 module (for section 47 enquiries within the local authority) and children in need details module (for children who are the subject of a child protection plan transfer into the local authority):

  1. A count of records in the section 47 module where the date of initial child protection conference is present and within the collection year 1 April to 31 March.

and

2. A count of records in the details module where the date of initial child protection conference is present and within the collection year 1 April to 31 March.

Child protection plans and children who were the subject of a child protection plan

The method used to calculate the number of child protection plans is provided in the table below. 

Equivalent child-level measures are calculated by counting a child once, regardless of how many child protection plans they were the subject of during the year.

MeasureDefinition
Child protection plans starting in the yearA count of child protection plans where the start date is within the collection year 1 April to 31 March.
Child protection plans at any point in the year A count of child protection plans where the start date is on or before 31 March of the collection year and the end date is after the end of the collection year (31 March)  or is missing.
Child protection plans that ended during the year A count of child protection plans where the start date is on or before 31 March of the collection year and the end date is within the collection year 1 April to 31 March.
Child protection plans open at 31 March

A count of child protection plans where the child protection plan start date is on or before 31 March of the collection year and there is no end date.

Since a child should not have more than one child protection plan at the same time, the number of child protection plans at 31 March should equal the number of children who were the subject of a child protection plan at 31 March.

Rates per 10,000 children aged under 18 years

The rates of children in need per 10,000 children aged under 18 years are calculated using ONS mid-year population estimates for children aged 0 to 17 years in England as the denominator.

Children in need figures (the numerator) include young people aged 18 years and over who continue to receive support from children’s social care services. In 2021, 12.7% of children in need at 31 March were aged 18 years and over, compared to 8.2% in 2013.

Children in need figures also include unborn children. In 2021, 1.9% of children in need at 31 March were unborn, compared to 1.6% in 2013.

Confidentiality and rounding

Confidentiality

The Code of Practice for Statistics requires we take reasonable steps to ensure that our published or disseminated statistics protect confidentiality. 

0 indicates the original figure submitted was zero.

c indicates any number between 1 and 5 inclusive has been suppressed and replaced by ‘c’; secondary suppression has been applied where necessary, to preserve confidentiality.

z indicates data is not applicable.

:  indicates that data is not available. 

Data may not be available for a number of reasons, including: where a local authority was unable to return a particular data item in the children in need census; changes to the data collected in the census; or data is not available because of concerns regarding quality.

The symbols used are in accordance with the latest Government Statistical Service (GSS) guidance.

Rounding

England and regional totals are rounded to the nearest 10 and therefore totals may not equal the sum of their component parts.

Percentages are rounded to one decimal place, therefore component parts may not sum to 100.

Rates per 10,000 children aged under 18 years are rounded to one decimal place. Rates are calculated using ONS mid-year population estimates for children aged 0 to 17 years in England.

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 can be broadly interpreted to mean that the statistics: 

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

Once statistics have been designated as National Statistics it is a statutory requirement that the Code of Practice shall continue to be observed.

The Department has a set of statistical policies in line with the Code of Practice for Statistics

Key users

The main users of the children in need data are:

  • the Department for Education who use the data to provide advice to Ministers on policy monitoring and setting future policies;
  • local authorities who use the information to benchmark themselves against other authorities as well as regional and national averages;
  • Ofsted who use the information as part of their inspection activities.

Other known users of the data are:

  • the Ministry of Justice who use the data, particularly on the number of children on child protection plans, to forecast the number of public law cases likely to enter the courts;
  • the NSPCC Consultancy Service to understand numbers of children who are the subject of a child protection plan;
  • the NSPCC Information Service analyse the statistics with a particular interest in breakdowns by age, gender, category of abuse, ethnicity and disability;
  • the Metropolitan Police Service (Child Abuse Investigation Command) for research into child abuse;
  • Action for Children group looking into the number of children who were the subject of a child protection plan, by local authority and by category of abuse;
  • other UK government departments for comparison purposes;
  • The Home Office;
  • Office of the Children's Commissioner;
  • Academic researchers

Related releases

Outcomes for children in need, including children looked after by local authorities in England: a range of outcome measures at national and local authority level for children in need, including children looked after, by local authorities in England.

Children looked after in England including adoptions:  Information on children looked after in England, including numbers of looked after children adopted, care leavers and looked after children who are missing.

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

Ofsted statistics: Ofsted publish inspection outcomes for local authority children’s services and children’s social care providers in England.