2 Context

Experiences of looked-after children and young people in England

There were 68,110 children and young people looked after by local authorities in England in the financial year 2012-2013 (year end 31 March 2013) (Children looked after in England (including adoption and care leavers Department for Education). This was 12% more than in 2009.

  • The number of boys and girls who were looked after both increased between 2009 and 2013.

  • The number of white and mixed-ethnicity children and young people who became looked after increased between 2009 and 20013, while the number of Asian children decreased.

  • At the end of the financial year 2012/13, 43% of looked-after children were younger than 10.

  • Most looked-after children (75% at the end of the financial year 2012-2013) were in foster care, 9% were in residential settings (secure units, children's homes and hostels) 5% were placed with their parents but made subject to a care order, and 5% were adopted. The remainder were in other placements or residential settings (See 'Children looked after in England, including adoption').

Early experiences may have long-term consequences for the health and social development of children and young people. A number have positive experiences in the care system and achieve good emotional and physical health, do well in their education and have good jobs and careers. However, entering care is strongly associated with poverty and deprivation (for example, low income, parental unemployment, relationship breakdown).

Around half of looked-after children in England are reported to have emotional and behavioural difficulties. Boys are more likely than girls to have higher scores on the strengths and difficulties questionnaire (SDQ), which indicates emotional difficulties (40.9% compared with 33.2%). Looked-after children also have poorer educational outcomes than children who are not looked after. The attainment gap between looked-after and non-looked-after children is decreasing, but is still large (Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England, as at 31 March 2013 Department for Education). Providing stability and permanence is important to help looked-after children and young people succeed and promote their emotional wellbeing (Raising the aspirations and educational outcomes of looked after children: a data tool for local authorities Department for Education).

One-third of all children and young people in contact with the criminal justice system have been looked after (Statutory guidance on promoting the health and well-being of looked after children Department for Children, Schools and Families). However, a substantial majority of young people in care who commit offences had already started to offend before becoming looked after (Darker et al. 2008). More recent data show that 6.2% of looked after children aged 10 to 17 had been convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand during 2012/13, compared with 1.5% for allchildren ('Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England, as at 31 March 2013').

Looked-after children and young people should have clear expectations for their care and wellbeing (Children on care standards: children's views on national minimum standards for children's social care Ofsted). The report stated that they should expect to take part in decisions that affect their lives, be kept healthy and safe, be treated with respect, and be treated equally to other children and young people. However, local variations in service access and support can mean that these expectations are not always met.

National policy and guidance

There is a wide range of policies and guidance relevant to looked-after children and young people (see the list in section 9).

Of particular note is The Children and Families Act 2014, which received Royal Assent in March 2014. The Act introduced reforms to tackle delay in the adoption process and for improve the life chances of looked after children and young people. It introduced 'fostering for adoption' placements; gave children in care the option to stay with their foster families until they turn 21; required every local authority to have a virtual school head to champion the education of children in care; improved the quality of children's residential care; changed the arrangements for contact between looked-after children and their birth families; removed the explicit wording around ethnicity when considering the compatibility of children with foster carers and adoptive parents; and introduced a single education, health and care plan for children with special education needs and disabilities up to the age of 25 (See The Children and Families Act explanatory notes).

Statutory guidance on promoting the health and well-being of looked after children

In November 2009 the then Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) published 'Statutory guidance on promoting the health and well-being of looked after children'. This replaced the guidance, 'Promoting the health of looked after children', published by the Department of Health in 2002. The new guidance aimed to remove inconsistencies and promote better-coordinated care. Local authorities, primary care trusts and strategic health authorities in England should implement it in accordance with sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004. Local authorities must also comply under section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 with duties to promote the health of looked-after children and young people[2].

The revised document also includes practice guidance on access to services, care planning and placement quality, physical health and health promotion.

Care planning, placement and case review regulations and statutory guidance for local authorities

In March 2010, the Department for Children Schools and Families published The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations volume 2: care planning, placement and case review. This document was issued as part of a set of statutory guidance which, together with the 2010 regulations, defined the core duties primarily of local authorities for ensuring more purposeful care planning, placement and review for looked-after children and young people There have been several amendments to this guidance (See Children Act 1989: care planning, placement and case review Department for Education), as well as the introduction of other statutory guidance including:

Inspection guidance and standards for looked-after children outcomes and services

Ofsted introduced a single inspection framework in 2013 (Framework and evaluation schedule for the inspection of services for children in need of help and protection, children looked after and care leavers). It also covers reviews of local safeguarding children boards. The framework focuses on the effectiveness of local authority services and arrangements to help and protect children, the arrangements for permanence for children who are looked after, and the experiences and progress of care.

The Department for Education's national minimum standards for adoption, children's homes and fostering have been revised since this guideline was first published in September 2010 (See the Department for Education's National minimum standards for the welfare of children and Children's homes: national minimum standards). The standards are for children's social care providers and may be used by providers for self-assessment of their services. They aim to achieve positive welfare, health and education outcomes for children and young people, and reduce risks to their welfare and safety.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) is reviewing how health services keep children safe and contribute to promoting the health and wellbeing of looked after children and care leavers. This review will run until April 2015. The CQC is also working with other agencies (including Ofsted) to plan multi-agency inspections, which have been deferred until April 2015 (See Child safeguarding and looked after children inspection programme Care Quality Commission).

[2] It includes statutory guidance on: joint working and responsibilities; performance management and inspection; commissioning responsibilities; out of authority placements; notifications of placements; frameworks for healthy care; service management and delivery; health plans; care planning; assessment; child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS); leaving care; involving children and young people; the roles of the social worker, health and other professionals (including the independent reviewing officer, lead health professional, designated doctor and nurse); and access to positive activities.

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)