How do different types of social care involvement affect children’s education and offending outcomes?

Formal child social care services are responsible for protecting and promoting children’s welfare, health and development. Each child’s experiences with social care are unique – however, the nature of the involvement from these services will affect the impact it has. When a child and their family are referred to formal social care services, the family’s level of need is assessed. Where families are considered to need further intervention, they are assigned one of two categories:

  • Child in need: Children and young people who are assessed as being ‘in need’ are designated a social worker, and support is offered to the child or young person and their family. This approach aims to help the family become better able to meet the child’s needs.
  • A child protection order: This order is issued where there are greater concerns for the wellbeing of the child. There is more support or more frequent contact between formal child social care services and the family.

If concern for the wellbeing of the child remains following a child protection order, then a care order may be issued. This may take the form of temporary or long-term foster care, where the child is classified as a looked after child, or they may be adopted.

The factors that affect children’s social care experiences

Journeys of children through the social care system are typically not straightforward. Individuals may have different classifications at different times, repeated referrals to or periods of involvement with social care services, and changes or instability in foster placements. Formal interventions from child social care services may be time-limited or they may extend across a person’s entire childhood. The first contact with these services may be at birth, or the child may be nearing adulthood when they are first referred.

However, structural inequalities in the provision of early interventions mean that children and young people are more likely to require acute interventions – such as entering care – in some local authorities than in others. This impacts greatly on the child’s or young person’s experiences, as formal involvement from child social care services may have protective effect on their life and environment. This is especially common where there is exposure at home or in the community to trauma or adverse experiences.

Despite this potential protective effect, research suggests that in general, children and young people who are care experienced or have a social worker have worse outcomes in childhood and across the life course than their peers.

Tracking the impact of social care involvement using linked data  

The nature of formal child social care services involvement in childhood is one of the dynamic factors that impacts on experiences and outcomes for children and young people. Little is known about how different degrees and durations of involvement may affect outcomes in two key areas: education and involvement with criminal justice services. It has been challenging for researchers to unpick the dynamic risk or protective effect of formal child social care services on later outcomes.

However, recent linking of administrative data between the Department for Education (DfE) and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in England has produced a large, de-identified dataset that connects information on social care, education and crime. Researchers can use this dataset to answer some of these important and complex questions.

My project will use this dataset to explore how involvement from formal social care services in childhood impacts attainment and engagement in education. I will also explore engagement with criminal justice services in childhood and early adulthood. Different types and forms of formal child social care services involvement will be compared for potential risk or protective effects on later outcomes, including:

  • a child in need
  • a child protection order
  • a looked after child
  • the age of first involvement
  • the duration of involvement.

In addition, I will compare data from local authorities to assess how regional differences and inequalities might impact outcomes for children. I will focus particularly on differences between local authorities in when and how formal child social care services become involved with the child and their families.

The planned work is set to be completed by June 2023. The hope is that the research findings will inform better understanding of the impact of social care experiences on children’s life outcomes, and lead to more effective interventions through policy and practice changes.

Dr Anna Leyland is an ADR UK-funded Research Fellow using linked MoJ-DfE data made available through Data First.

Find out more about the Fellowship.

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