West Midlands in Context: Children in Need, in need

For many, Children in Need maybe synonymous with Pudsey Bear and the late Sir Terry Wogan, but it also has a legal meaning. Children in need are defined in law as under 18s who need local authority services to: achieve and maintain a reasonable standard of health or development; to prevent significant or further harm; or because they are disabled. This is no small matter, in 2013-14 there were 2.3 million initial contacts to services and in 2014-15 some 635,600 children were referred for help, with 391,000 defined as in need on 31st March 2015.

In 2010 the Department of Education (DoE) commissioned the Munro Review into improving children’s services. Looking into the progress the DoE has made in since then, the National Audit Office (NAO) appears unimpressed, finding the national child protection picture “unsatisfactory and inconsistent, suggesting systemic rather than just local failure”. In their report they say that “far too many services are still not “Good”. Moreover, they found that the quality of services did not appear to correlate to spending levels, that access to help and support was not equal across the country, and that the interventions to improve failed services had been ad hoc. In terms of the approach taken by the DoE, the NAO found that, while it had accepted almost all the Munro Review’s recommendations and has undertaken various programmes in response, it “did not set out what a reformed system would achieve for children”, with data on volumes and the timeliness of processes, but other than for education, not on the outcomes for children and families in contact with the system.

While they recognise that the DoE is not solely responsible, and allowing for the need for reform to be delivered through councils, the NAO says the outcomes have been disappointing. To move forward, they say that the DoE needs to “show urgency and determination on delivering their responsibilities”. The NAO’s suggests that “the foundations of a cycle of improvement would involve understanding what works, timely measurement of the quality of protection across areas, pointing out poor performance and an effective response that improves services quickly”. The report goes on to say that “none of these are yet in place to the extent necessary”. As such, it recommends that the DoE set out how and when it will have the capacity to transform services by its stated target date of 2020.

Under pressure

Looking at the figures, 11% more was spent on children’s social work, including local authorities’ child protection functions in 2014-15, compared to 2012-13. This brought the total spending up to £1.8 billion. However, pressures have been increasing too. In the past ten years there has been a 124% increase in the rate of enquires where local authorities believe a child may be suffering, or likely to suffer considerable harm. The rates of children with a child protection plan, where a local authority suspects a risk of significant harm, have risen dramatically as well, by 94% in the last 10 years.


As one might expect there are differences between local authorities. However, the NAO was concerned at the wide variations in practice and performance across councils. For example, although the average cost per child in need was £2,300 in 2014-15, the range varied from £340 to £4,970. Disconcertingly, the NAO also found that there was no relationship between the cost and the quality of the service. With this at least partly in mind, among the NAO’s recommendations is that the DoE improves its cost information on services, particularly in respect of the local authorities’ financial returns, so that cost-effectiveness can underpin decisions on practice.


Authorities deal with a huge number of contacts. As an indication of volume the NAO cite a figure of 2.3 million initial contacts, which resulted in 660,000 referrals in 2013-14. Each time a council is contacted, it will need to respond in some way. The system of contacting or making a referral varies from place to place and the NAO found that it was not clear which arrangements worked best, how much they cost and whether they were delivering value for money or not.

A further problem found by the NAO, was that the variation in local thresholds which regulate access to services were “not always well understood or applied by local partners”. Moreover, according to Ofsted, these were sometimes set either too high or too low, leading to “inappropriate referrals or children left at risk”. The NAO recommended that the DoE sets out how it will reconcile the variability of local thresholds for help and protection with the goal of all children having equal access to high-quality services.

The rates for re-referring children and the need to make repeat child protection plans also varied widely between authorities. The NAO noted that while there will always be some need for re-referrals, wide variations in rates need to be examined and practice challenged. In a similar vein, it suggested that a high proportion of repeat child protection plans “may suggest the authority is not intervening effectively to bring about sustainable changes”.

Workload related to quality

While the NAO found that the amount of money spent on children’s social work was not related to the quality of services, high caseloads, staff vacancies and the use of agency workers were. Indeed, according to Ofsted, the authorities that were rated “good” “tend to be the ones that give their social workers manageable caseloads”. Noting that while caseloads will vary according to complexity and risk, in most authorities judged “good” each social worker had about 10 to 14 cases. In practice the NAO found the number ranged from seven to 34.

In terms of staffing, it appears that “good” authorities tended to have on average 7% agency staff and an 11% level of social worker vacancies. This compares to the figures for those judged “inadequate”, where the proportion was 22% on both counts. With these factors in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that the NAO included social worker vacancy rates and the use of agency staff alongside re-referral rates and repeat child protection plans, as potential lead indicators for an early intervention regime that would “anticipate failing services before they fail.


• National Audit Office – Children in need of help or protection, October 2016