Huge postcode disparity in proportion of children in care

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A study by the University of Stirling and six other British universities has revealed significant inequalities in child welfare across the UK, with children in Scotland’s poorest areas 20 times more likely than those in the least deprived to become involved in the child protection system.

Researchers found ‘strong social gradients’ in the rates of intervention across the four countries, with each step increase in neighbourhood deprivation bringing a significant rise in the proportion of children either ‘looked after’ in care (LAC) or on a child protection plan or register (CPP/CPR).

Academics from the universities of Stirling, Edinburgh, Coventry, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Cardiff and Queen’s University Belfast were funded by the Nuffield Foundation to investigate data on over 35,000 children who are either LAC or on CPPs – over 10% of all such cases open in March 2015, when the study began.

In Scotland ten local authorities (LAs) took part – representing approximately 53% of the child population (0-17yrs) – with a sample including over 1,500 children on the CPR and around 8,500 LAC.


The Child Welfare Inequalities Project’s findings, which are revealed at a conference in London today, show that:

  • children in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in Scotland are 20 times more likely to be LAC than children in the least deprived 10%;
  • across the UK, each step increase in deprivation brings a rise of around a third in a child’s chances of being in care;
  • in all countries children are over-represented in the most deprived 20% of neighbourhoods, particularly so in Northern Ireland.

The study drilled down below local authority level in all the four countries, revealing that children living in equivalent neighbourhoods – whether highly deprived or not – in different LAs have starkly different chances of being in care, with low deprivation LAs around 50% more likely to intervene.

Although it was beyond the scope of the study to analyse why this was the case, the researchers say the likely explanation is that – relative to demand – more deprived LAs have fewer resources to allocate to children’s services.

Scottish care system

Professor Brigid Daniel, from the University of Stirling’s Centre for Child Wellbeing and Protection, said: “Too many children in Scotland are living in poverty.  It is to be hoped that the range of anti-poverty initiatives in Scotland, including the Child Poverty Bill, will eventually impact on levels of child welfare interventions. However, it is notable that the Child Poverty Strategy makes no mention of child protection or children being looked after away from home as linked with poverty. The First Minister has established a ‘root and branch’ review of the care system in Scotland: our research suggests that this review must focus on poverty as one of the key factors associated with children being accommodated away from home in the first place.”

Researchers also spoke with local authorities and frontline social work professionals about how decisions around individual children and families were made. Poverty was often treated as a ‘taken for granted’ backdrop of practice, rather than a key focus of work to support families.

Child welfare

Lead investigator Professor Paul Bywaters from Coventry University said:“This is not about pointing the finger at local authorities or apportioning blame to anyone for a situation that is in critical need of attention. What we’re doing is holding up a mirror to the child welfare sector, and to the UK’s governments, and saying ‘This is how it is – now what shall we do about it?’. Our ultimate aim is to make reducing inequalities in child welfare a key policy objective, in the same way that tackling inequalities in health and education have been prioritised in recent years.”

Many staff across the UK reported feeling ‘overwhelmed’ by the complex level of need they encountered in families, and did not feel that they had the power to change the inequalities that they saw.

Background information

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