Children’s social service referrals from schools soar to record high

New data shows schools have seen the largest increase in referrals of any service, up 50 per cent since 2014

New data shows schools have seen the largest increase in referrals of any service, up 50 per cent since 2014

27 Oct 2022, 14:36

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The number of referrals to children’s social services made by schools has risen by more than 50 per cent in the last eight years, government data shows.

A total of 129,090 referrals – the largest figure since reporting began in 2014 – were made by English schools in the year up to 31 March 2022.

It represents a 51 per cent rise on the year ending March 2014, when 85,630 referrals were made.

It comes as referrals of vulnerable children deemed to face risks to their development or health increased across the board following the pandemic.

In the year to March 2022, there were 650,270 referrals to children’s social services from all sources – up 8.8 per cent from 2021 and 1 per cent from 2020.

The Department for Education (DfE) said increases across the last two years had been driven by a 59 per cent rise in referrals from schools, which was expected as there were no national attendance restrictions during the year.

Police data collected by child protection charity NSPCC shows child cruelty offences in England jumped by a quarter (to more than 26,000) in the year to March 2022, compared with the previous year (just over 21,000).

referrals to children's social services by source
Source DfE

But pre-pandemic data also shows annual increases in referrals from schools between 2014 and 2019.

DfE pledged to put social workers in classrooms

In recognition of the increasing role of schools in identifying signs of abuse and neglect in children, former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson announced a scheme to put social workers in classrooms in 2020.

The £6.5 million fund was rolled out to more than 150 schools with the aim of joining up the work of social workers and teaching professionals following a rise in reports of domestic incidents during lockdowns.

At the time, schools were second largest source of referrals to children’s social services, at 18 per cent.

This figure now stands at 20 per cent, but it is not clear what role the scheme has played in the increase.

Police remain the largest source of referrals to children’s social care, with 191,840 made across England this year. 

While referrals made by forces remained steady during the pandemic, they grew at a much slower rate than schools during the eight-year period – at 23 per cent.

In contrast to referrals, the proportion of children assessed as needing help and protection as a result of external risks has fallen. 

‘The system is struggling to cope’

In the year to March 2014, 19.6 per cent of referrals resulted in assessments where the child was deemed not to be in need. In the year ending March 2022, the figure was 28.8 per cent. 

Referrals deemed to require no further action have also fallen – from 14.1 in 2014 to 7.6 in 2022. 

The DfE said more local authorities signposting children to early help service, as opposed to social care, was likely to have contributed to the fall in referrals resulting in no further action.

Clare Kelly, associate head of policy at NSPCC, said: “We know the system is struggling to cope and the cost-of-living crisis will likely leave more families needing help.

“Today’s figures must serve as a wake-up call for the government to make child protection a national priority and publish their action plan in response to the review into the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson as soon as possible.”

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the increase in referrals had followed “years of cuts to local authority funding” leading to “an erosion of support” for families.

“In addition, we have seen growing waiting times for children’s mental health support services,” said Margaret Mulholland, ASCL’s SEND and inclusion specialist.

“These services should help prevent these issues from escalating to an extent where children are at risk of abuse and neglect. Without them, schools are increasingly being left to pick up the pieces.

“Staff are already under significant workload strain, but are doing their best to fill the void and good safeguarding practice by schools has led to a rise in identification of needs.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is vital that children are safe and supported in order for them to thrive, no matter their background. We are strengthening links between social care and education to keep the most vulnerable children and young people engaged in their education and providing targeted funding for pupils who are in care or who have social workers.

“These pupils also have the support of a dedicated staff member in every local area to identify and champion their needs.”

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