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Nikki Luke of the Rees Centre explains why the group of children known as ‘Children in Need’ should receive more attention in policy and research.  This is one of the main themes emerging from a new report ‘Children in Need and Children in Care: Educational attainment and progress’ published today.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the report resulted from a collaboration led by Nikki Luke at the Rees Centre and David Berridge at the University of Bristol.  The findings were drawn from:

  • Quantitative analysis of data from a whole birth cohort of children (471,688) born in England in 2000/01, starting school in 2006/07 and tracked through to their GCSE exams in 2017.
  • Interviews with 123 children, parents/carers and professionals.

The report examined the ‘attainment gap’ between children with a social worker and other pupils, and aimed to identify the factors that might explain this gap. Our analysis showed that educational attainment was lower for children who had any social work intervention during their school years compared with those who had no intervention: from 10-16% lower at the end of primary school, and 34-53% lower at the end of secondary school.

One important theme from our research is the need for greater attention to Children in Need in educational policy and research. Historically, attention has been focused on Children in Care; a reasonable direction given that Children in Care generally represent the most challenging home circumstances and severest levels of need. However, our report suggests that for a number of reasons the focus should be broadened to include the education of Children in Need.

Solely in numerical terms, Children in Need represent a larger issue: of the 69,246 children in our dataset who needed a social worker at some stage between school Years 1-11, only 13% were ever placed In Care. Most children receiving social work services live at home with birth families. Like Children in Care, most Children in Need have a social worker because of challenging family circumstances. They are also similar in terms of other forms of disadvantage: living in significantly more deprived areas than the national average, being 3-4 times as likely as children without social workers to be eligible for Free School Meals, and 2-6 times as likely to have an identified Special Educational Need or Disability.

These similarities in the characteristics of Children in Need and Children in Care come as no surprise when another finding is taken into account: 85% of Children in Care had previously been identified as Children in Need. The centrality of Children in Care over Children in Need in policy and research belies the fact that these are generally the same children at different points in their experience of social work intervention (and instead places the focus on the child’s legal status).

In practice, of course, Children in Need dominate the work of Children’s Services, and attention is paid to their educational progress as well as to other areas of their development. Indeed, our interviews revealed that many social workers were active regarding the education of Children in Need, often working to empower and advocate for parents to help ensure an effective education.

However, in policy terms, Children in Need are not afforded the same levels of educational support as Children in Care. They do not fall under the official remit of responsibilities for Virtual School Headteachers, a role that has made much progress in championing the education of Children in Care. They also do not attract the enhanced Pupil Premium Plus funding that is available for Children in Care, which might go some way to mitigating the educational difficulties of families living in poverty, as revealed in our interviews.

With this in mind, our research findings support and build on the recommendations of the Government’s Children in Need Review. Our report outlines some of the specific changes that we feel would help to improve the educational attainment and progress of Children in Need:

  • Efforts to increase the visibility of the Children in Need group should continue, including raising the profile of Children in Need within schools and in Ofsted reports.
  • With appropriate resourcing, there would be strong advantages in Virtual Schools, or a similar service, overseeing Children in Need as well as Children in Care.
  • There are strong arguments for Pupil Premium Plus (PPP) payments to be extended in some form to Children in Need.
  • Approaches that address the impact of poverty on education should be promoted (e.g. ‘Poverty Proofing the School Day’:
  • Teacher training for pupils’ well-being should include the specific circumstances of Children in Need and Children in Care, for example ‘attachment awareness’ issues and effective and acceptable behaviour management techniques for vulnerable pupils.

This research study built on our previous collaboration (published in 2015) which was the first research to statistically link education and care factors and complement this with interviews of secondary-aged Children in Care in England. In that project, we had found that children in longer-term care did better educationally than those receiving a social work service but not living In Care.

Following this report, in 2016 the Department for Education’s annual statistics on educational outcomes for Children in Care began including a comparison with Children in Need. In 2017, the Conservative party’s election manifesto included a pledge to “review support for Children in Need to understand why their outcomes are so poor and what more support they might require, in and out of school”.  This was fulfilled by the publication of the Children in Need Review in 2019.

Dr Nikki Luke, Senior Research Fellow, Rees Centre

Contact Nikki:

Professor Judy Sebba

Children in need are half as likely to achieve strong passes in English and Maths GCSE, when controlling for SEN, low income, ethnicity, EAL and school moves, even 4 years after their CIN status has ended, according to the government review on children in need (CIN) published in June 2019.

This suggests that whatever support is being provided during the child’s designation as ‘in need’ may be making a significant contribution to their protection from harm, but is failing to facilitate adequate educational progress.

Children in need are defined in the report as those who are accessing social care support for safeguarding and/or welfare purposes, including disabled children. The review provides some challenging figures – 1.6 million (1 in 10) children ‘ever’ needed a social worker over the 6 years from 2012-18. Nearly two-thirds of these pupils live in families where there is domestic abuse, mental illness and/or alcohol/substance abuse. These young people are in 98% of schools, with 10-20% of the school population in half of all secondary schools being identified as children in need. They are twice as likely to be admitted to school at an unusual time of year, three times more likely to be persistently absent and four times more likely to be permanently excluded.

The review predictably notes that safety, stability and educational outcomes are linked: the longer a child is in need or the more significant the risk of harm, the greater the impact on education. Hence, while being in school can help to keep children safe whether at risk in or outside their home, improving outcomes also requires us to address the reasons why they needed a social worker in the first place. Children in need benefit from whole school approaches (such as the Alex Timpson Programme on Attachment and Trauma in Schools) that benefit all pupils, alongside reasonable adjustments and targeted interventions specifically for them. The children in need consulted in the review wanted adults to be sensitive but ambitious. Safety and stability must be pursued alongside, not as a precursor, to high aspirations.

In 2015, we published a report focusing mainly on ‘children looked-after’ in which we concluded from the 2013 GCSE cohort that providing (relatively stable) care protects children’s educational achievement since those in longer-term care did better than those in need and those in shorter-term care (Educational progress of looked after children in England (pdf). A further project funded by the Nuffield Foundation (and led by Prof David Berridge at Bristol University in collaboration with the Rees Centre) is currently interrogating the educational progress of children who have ‘ever’ been in care or in need.

Should the recommendations in the government’s review have gone further perhaps?

The importance of identifying this group in national data collection, school, local authority and national monitoring and inspection might improve the targeted services that they receive. Reducing the current 45-day limit on annual fixed term exclusions (a recommendation in the Timpson Exclusions review published earlier this year) will benefit children in need in particular and greater information sharing between social care and education might reduce these exclusions. Both the children in need (CIN) Review and the Exclusions Review emphasise the importance of improving the staffing and quality of Alternative Provision, but structurally this provision can only ever be a stop-gap since their size and structure limit the breadth of curriculum and specialist teaching provided.

Supporting children in need to make greater progress will undoubtedly be more likely if the recommendations made for extending Pupil Premium to all children in need (two-thirds are currently eligible) and extending Virtual School Services to this population are implemented. However these require additional resources that seem unlikely in the current climate.

Less resource intensive is ensuring some coverage on teaching children in need in both initial teaching training and professional development that might make the culture of mainstream schools more conducive to keeping these pupils in school and being more confident to address their difficulties.

DfE Children in Need (CIN) Review 2019

Timpson Review of School Exclusions May 2019

Related Rees Centre research:

Linking Care and Educational Data: The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England. Overview Report 2015 pdf

The Educational Attainment and Progress of Children in Need and Children in Care 

Alex Timpson Attachment and Trauma Programme in Schools

This blog post is written by Professor Judy Sebba, Rees Centre.
Contact Judy: