Improving the utility of data on care-experienced children

Categories: ADR Scotland, Children & young people, Impact, Potential

30 August 2022

Improving the utility of data on care-experienced children

Author: Cecilia MacIntyre, Tom Alexis

Since 2020, colleagues from ADR Scotland – in Scottish Government and the Scottish Centre for Administrative Data Research – have been working together to improve the utility of an important data resource on care-experienced children. They have transformed the longitudinal looked after children dataset to make it research-ready and enhance its quality and metadata.


The longitudinal dataset was constructed by combining annual returns of data from local authorities in Scotland. The resulting dataset included some inconsistencies due to changes being made to the information collected by local authorities. As a result of these inconsistencies, certain types of analysis could not be undertaken using the data as it currently stood. A project was therefore set up with researchers and colleagues within Education Analytical Services in Scottish Government to investigate the quality of the data. 

Project on data quality

The project examined findings from researchers who had used the data previously, to identify a list of issues. Work was then undertaken to address these issues directly or implement solutions with partners for the future. In a number of instances, issues were fixed using other information contained in the data.

In other instances, issues within the data were flagged. This allows clean case histories to be created for children whose histories had contradictions. These issues were also flagged to local authorities who were able to provide further information. This collaboration with local authorities allowed the project to build a rich history of the data journey and where inconsistencies had been caused during data gathering.


A number of improvements were recommended and taken forward as a result of this work. For example:

  • A solution has been recommended to improve linkage of records for individuals who move or change identifiers. In this case, an alternate person-level identifier can be created out of other information in the data. By looking across local authorities for other occurrences of the same combinations of data, records will be identified that are likely to belong to the same person.
  • The data validation process undertaken by the Scottish Government has been updated. A specific quality check will now be implemented to look for the issues identified during this project to ensure the data is delivered in a format useful for research. The work has also led to formats being made more compliant with internationally recognised standards, consistency of codes across years being mapped and explained, and the development of metadata and extensive guidance documents for data users.

Going forward, the project has also demonstrated the importance of having a feedback mechanism for researchers and other data users to report on their findings and experiences of using ADR Scotland resources, so that continual improvements can be made.

Children and Families Statistics Team Leader, Scottish Government, Craig Kellock, said:

“The work to enhance the research potential of statistical data held by Scottish Government on children with experience of care has brought several benefits, and will continue to do so. It has helped my team’s understanding of data quality issues which could only be identified by bringing together data including records for children in care over several years. This has informed future data validation work which will have a positive impact on the quality of statistics.

“Local authorities have responded positively to the work, and are keen to understand how they can make use of the findings and work together to improve the consistency and quality of data returned. The new dataset provides the basis for robust analysis of children’s journeys through the care system. Through ADR Scotland, its linkage to other datasets makes possible analysis to understand outcomes experienced by people with care experience.”

The Permanently Progressing research team who have used this data said:

“This administrative data is in essence ‘information about children’. In order to help policy makers and practitioners to understand more about children’s lives, and effectively plan and deliver services to meet needs, it is important that the information held about children is accurate, reflects what is important to children and their families, and is accessible to researchers in a timely and secure manner.

“The work ADR Scotland has been doing to enhance the quality, completeness and secure access to the data is important for researchers, for policy makers, for practitioners, and ultimately and most importantly for children and their families.”

Overall, this work showcases the value of academics and government working together to improve the utility of administrative data for research.


A number of research projects and studies are ongoing using the longitudinal looked after children dataset, including:

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