Key questions for children’s services: Identifying the gaps

Categories: Blogs, ADR England, Office for National Statistics, Children & young people

Written by Elizabeth Waind 29 August 2019

Administrative data has huge potential to offer valuable insights into the lives of children. With a better understanding of the interplay of factors affecting children’s outcomes, policymakers can make decisions that work better for children and young people across the UK. 

But what are the key questions that research using administrative data about children could help to answer? Where do the evidence gaps lie, and which datasets could offer the greatest potential for providing insights to improve children’s lives? 

Collaborative work is crucial to answering these questions. That’s why ADR UK, alongside the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Children’s Commissioner for England, held an afternoon workshop with representatives from a host of universities, independent research organisations and public bodies from across the UK this July.

By bringing together delegates from Ofsted, What Works for Children’s Social Care, the Department for Education (DfE), the University of Sussex and many others, we sought to combine the shared expertise of those at the forefront of shaping services for children to discuss the potential of linked administrative data in aiding their work. Two important areas in need of better evidence identified during the workshop were: pathways into care and associated outcomes; and school exclusions and violence.


Pathways into care and associated outcomes 

How to better understand the needs of looked-after children and children on the edge of care formed a large part of discussions. Linking data to offer a longitudinal lens on pathways into care and the outcomes that follow could offer a more in-depth understanding of how services can work better for this group. 

Looked-after children data, which is compiled annually from local authorities across the country, includes every episode of care. It was expressed that better access to this data would be particularly useful for researchers, providing a more accurate view of a child’s experiences in care to better understand which factors are connected to which outcomes. 

ADR Northern Ireland and ADR Scotland have already begun work analysing local authority data about looked-after children, with ADR Wales in the process of depositing it into the SAIL Databank, and all with plans to link it to other datasets. However, there is plenty of scope for more work in this area, particularly in England. 


School exclusions and violence 

With the recent rise of violent crime in the UK, another key consideration was how linked administrative data can help to shed light upon the connections between challenging behaviour and violence and other areas of a young person’s life. 

It was noted that it can be difficult to investigate exclusions that are linked to crime without connecting education and crime data. Formal exclusion is also not the only way that children leave schools, with a growing phenomenon of children disappearing from the school system for unexplained reasons. 

The importance of linking education data to health data was raised; ill health could be an underlying factor contributing to a young person’s involvement in crime, or their exclusion. ADR UK already has plans to link health and education data in the devolved administrations, although existing barriers to accessing health data for England make the connections between health and educational outcomes difficult to understand, and more needs to be done to open up this type of data for research. 


Linking 2011 Census and educational attainment data for children 

ADR UK is currently working with ONS and DfE to link data from the 2011 Census with attainment data for England, including KS4 and KS5 qualifications. With access to this newly linked data, researchers will be able to decipher which children are living with which adults, to investigate which family circumstances lead to which outcomes.

First wave analysis of the dataset is now underway at the Centre for Equalities and Inclusion at ONS, but its scope is not limited to 2011 Census and education data. Identifying the key questions for researchers enables us to plan our work for the future, to decipher which additional data would be most useful for improving our understanding of children’s lives.

Collaborative working is at the heart of everything we do at ADR UK. Together with ONS and the Children’s Commissioner, we are re-defining how government works to improve outcomes for children by bringing together the shared expertise of those in a position to make a difference. 

The workshop identified many more gaps in our knowledge of how a child’s experiences affect their later outcomes than those discussed here. But all are gaps which the UK's existing wealth of administrative data could help to fill. Let’s use it.

If you’re interested in working with ADR UK to harness the potential of linked administrative data for research, please get in touch.

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