James Kirkup: We are failing children in care. But where is the outrage?

Posted On: 
12th August 2019

Almost 50,000 children are now in the care of councils whose services are either “inadequate” or “requiring improvement”. It’s hard not to conclude that we’re not really trying hard enough for looked-after children, writes Social Market Foundation Director James Kirkup

The Social Market Foundation’s Silent Crisis project tracks the services provided for looked-after children and their outcomes in later life
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There are few people among us more in need of care and support than looked after children. They are quite literally the weakest and most vulnerable among us: children whose parents cannot or will not care for them, meaning the state must step in to provide that care. 

So what does it say about our society that we consistently provide these children with services we know are failing them? And what does it say that even though this scandal is well-known, it’s actually getting worse, not better? 

The Social Market Foundation’s Silent Crisis project tracks the services provided for looked-after children and their outcomes in later life. We collect the data in a user-friendly dashboard that allows everyone — MPs, journalists, the public — to see how many children are in care in each area and how good the services for them are. 

Our findings show that we are collectively failing children who need our help and support.  

This year’s annual report from the project found that there are 48,723 looked-after children in council areas where care services have been judged to be either “inadequate” or “requiring improvement”. That’s 65% of the entire population of 75,420 looked-after children in England. 

Imagine what would happen if it was revealed that two-thirds of school pupils were in failing schools. It would be front-page news, a national scandal that would command the attention of politicians at the highest level. 

Yet how much attention is paid to such a failure in the services for children in care? Where is the outrage? Where is our sense of shame about something that is simply shameful?

In isolation, those figures above should occasion far more interest and, yes, anger from politicians and the media. Sadly though, this story is even grimmer than that. Because the number of looked-after children getting inadequate care and support is rising. Last year, when we analysed the data for care services, we found 47,085 children in the care of councils whose services were found wanting. This isn’t just a scandal, it’s a scandal that’s getting worse.

This is part of a wider trend towards more children in care. In 2013, there were 68,070 children in care. In 2018, the total was 75,420.    

Bluntly, those children don’t have much to look forward to. Being in care is strongly associated with poor economic and educational outcomes. We found that early 40% of care leavers in England aged 19-21 are not in education, employment or training (NEET). That’s far above the NEET rate amongst all 16-24-year olds in England, which is just 11.1%.

Meanwhile only 17.5% of pupils who were looked-after children achieved A*-C in both English and Mathematics GCSE. The figure is almost 60% for non-looked after children.  

And care-leavers and children still in care are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system. 42% of children in young offender institutions were previously in care. 

No one pretends that this is a simple problem to address. Children end up in care for complex, difficult reasons, not all of which can be solved by the state. Nor should we overlook the multiple challenges and demands facing local authorities and their severely strained budgets. 

But the fact that this is difficult is no reason not to try. And sadly, it’s hard not to conclude that we’re not really trying hard enough for children in care. Why not? Here we can only speculate, but here’s my guess: looked-after children don’t count. 

They don’t vote. They and their families have no political clout. Nor do they buy newspapers or interest the advertisers who fund much of our media. No one wins more votes or sells more copies because they pay attention to children in care. Yet these are precisely the sort of people that our representatives are supposed to think of and speak for and care about: the ones who can’t speak for themselves. 

James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation. The Silent Crisis data dashboard is at www.smf.co.uk