Headshot of Joanne Stoddart

The UK children in care population: an overview

Desk research carried out by Blue Cabin’s local authority specialist, Joanne Stoddart, brings together data on the number and characteristics of children in care across the UK.

Desk research carried out by Blue Cabin’s local authority specialist, Joanne Stoddart, brings together data on the number and characteristics of children in care across the UK. Here, Joanne gives an insight into the key findings and what they tell us about the children in care population.

Overall trends in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

The number and rate of children in care in the UK is increasing overall, although trends vary between the four nations. In England, the number of children in care has increased every year since 2008. In Northern Ireland, in 2022 the number of children in care was the highest recorded since the introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. In contrast, the number of children in care in Scotland and Wales has shown a decline.

However, there is a note of caution as there are differences between the nations around when children are counted as being ‘in care’, therefore, rates cannot be directly compared between nations.

An increase in unaccompanied asylum seeking children

Many of the changes in the English child in care population can be explained by the large increase in unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC).

UASC are children who have applied for asylum in their own right and are separated from both parents and/or any other responsible adult. Local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation for these children.

The figure for UASC has seen an increase of 42% on pre-pandemic 2019 figures. UASC are a distinct group of children in care and currently represent around 6% of children in care. UASC are generally male (90%) and older – 86% are aged 16 and over.

UASC are not cared for evenly across the country, they tend to be concentrated in local authorities that are points of entry into the country, for example Kent or Croydon.

Numbers of children in care in the North East of England

The North East of England has the highest child in care rate per 10,000 of children under 18 years in England, at 113.00. The England average is 71.00 and the lowest rate is outer London, at 46.00.

Of the North East, Hartlepool has the highest rate of children in care per 10,000 of the population (160.00), and Northumberland the lowest (77.00). It is noted that 8 of the 12 local authorities in the North East have seen increases in this rate in comparison to 2022, three a decrease (Stockton, Newcastle and Sunderland) and one has remained the same (Middlesbrough).

It is evident there is a clear difference between the local authorities in the north of the region in comparison with the south of the region: Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Darlington and Stockton are in the highest range with the exception of Gateshead.

The North East of England has consistently experienced a significantly higher rate of children starting to be ‘looked after’ over the past six years in comparison to the England average. It has also consistently experienced a significantly higher rate of children ceasing to be in care over the past six years in comparison to the England average.

The data also shows that:

  • The North East has experienced a lower rate of children in care experiencing three or more home moves during the year in comparison to the England average.
  • The North East has a similar percentage of children staying in the same home during the year in comparison to the England average.
  • The North East has seen a significant increase in the number of UASC being looked after over the last three years. However, compared to the statistical neighbour average, this is a lower figure.
  • Children are more likely to have a plan of adoption if living in the North East than the rest of England. At the end of 2023, the North East was 13% compared to England at 9%.

This data will not be a surprise to many people who work in local authorities

As a local authority practitioner I have been acutely aware of the increasing child in care population across both the country and specifically in the North East region, and also of the poverty rates across the country, so the data I saw during my research did not come as a surprise to me.

Like me, the vast majority of social care professionals will already be aware of the overall picture of the child in care population. However, as a busy social care professional myself, I can tend to just focus on the here and now, and at times I have to remind myself to look up and around to see the bigger picture.

Understanding the bigger picture enables practitioners to analyse how their local authority is performing, and undertake deep dives if data or findings differ greatly to other areas.

Understanding differences then naturally leads on to starting conversations to explore why, and more importantly, how this may be impacting on children and their families.

Blue Cabin’s work with local authorities in the North East and beyond

Blue Cabin is based in the North East of England and already has strong connections with many local authorities and organisations in the North East.

The findings from my research reaffirm the need for continued focus within the region and will support us in planning Blue Cabin’s future work.

The children in care population is continuing to rise and the need for life story work and other interventions to help improve outcomes for these children and young people will also continue to increase.

Having access to in-depth information like this is invaluable in helping us to understand the needs of children and young people going forward.

Watch a short film made by care-experienced children and young people

This film, by The Studio of the Fostered Heroes, shares the stories of a group of care-experienced children and young people from Redcar and Cleveland.

It gives their opinions on being adopted, in foster care, residential care or kinship care, and aims to dispel what the group feels are stereotypes about being in care.

About Joanne Stoddart

Joanne Stoddart is a Local Authority Specialist working with both Blue Cabin, she also holds a role in a regional adoption agency. She is an experienced children’s social worker and manager, with almost 25 years’ experience working in Local Authorities. She has held various roles from children’s social worker to head of service, all within statutory children’s services, with significant direct experience of working with care-experienced children and young people. Joanne has been involved in Blue Cabin’s Creative Life Story Work project over the past three years, and has worked closely and collaboratively with Blue Cabin throughout.