One in six children are vulnerable and face risks to their wellbeing

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Complex needs: The Vulnerability Report 2018 gives an insight into the problems that many students in our classrooms may be facing, as this infographic, one of a number released with the report, shows

An estimated 2.1 million of England’s 11.8 million children – one in six – are living in families where there are risks so serious that some level of intervention or help is necessary.

However, 1.6 million children are thought to be “invisible” to the system – living in vulnerable situations but not receiving any help.

The figures have come from the second annual Vulnerability Report 2018, compiled and published by England’s children’s commissioner – Anne Longfield – and are based on a range of information held by various government departments and agencies.

The report estimates that within the 2.1 million figure, more than 100,000 children are living in a family with the “toxic trio” of domestic violence, mental health, and alcohol or substance abuse. The report’s 2.1 million figure also includes:

  • 890,000 children with parents suffering serious mental health problems.
  • 825,000 children living in homes with domestic violence.
  • 470,000 children whose parents use substances problematically.
  • 470,000 children living in material deprivation.
  • 170,000 children who care for their parents or siblings.
  • 310,000 children are classified as “children in need”.
  • 410,000 children in families that are being, or have previously been, supported by the Troubled Families programme.
  • 30,000 children who are registered with their council as a young carer.

One of the warnings within the report is about the overlap of vulnerabilities, many of which are often linked. This means that many children are facing multiple challenges and/or threats to their wellbeing.

The report states: “This is where the country’s response to vulnerable children most often falls down and where the gaps in both practice and data are greatest.

“Individual agencies too often identify and respond to one vulnerable characteristic … but fail to take a holistic approach to explore the full range of multiple, overlapping vulnerabilities that a child is experiencing. Consequently, the children most likely to be missed by services arranged around ‘system’ lines are those with multiple low-level vulnerabilities none of which individually meet the high threshold set for a child to receive support.”

Another warning is about the sheer number of children slipping through the net – an estimated 1.6 million who are not receiving any support. The report states: “The analysis we have presented here shows that there are nearly 1.6 million children with complex family needs who are receiving no known, structured support for their additional needs.

“For too long the extent of unmet need among children has been hidden by lack of data: nobody has made the effort to collect all of this information in one place before. A prevalence survey into children’s mental health needs which will be published this autumn by NHS England – the first time in 14 years – will show a similar story: children’s needs overlooked for too long, and we know that acute services from CAMHS are now under intense pressure as a result.”

As well as the moral imperative to act, the report highlights the cost to the state of this lack of support – £17 billion per year: “This research identifies a stark gap between the number of children with additional needs and those getting support. We know that failing to provide support often has major consequences for children to bear, but also carries a substantial cost to the state.”

The report’s findings carry clear implications for schools, with the figure of one in six children translating to five children in a typical classroom of 30. In such a classroom, according to the report, teachers could find:

  • 15 children would have experienced bullying at some point.
  • 3 would have a limiting long term health condition.
  • 8 children will have a parent with a mental health problem.
  • 1 child living in a household where both parents serious mental health problems.
  • 3 children with their own mental health issues.
  • 1 child caring for their parents or siblings.
  • 3 children with SEN.
  • 2 children living in homes with domestic violence and abuse.
  • 1 child living in material deprivation and severe low income.
  • 1.8 children would be receiving statutory support.

In the report, Ms Longfield states: "These figures should trigger not only our concerns and questioning; they must also trigger our action. Of course, the stark statistics explained in this report do not mean that all children with the high level vulnerabilities identified will have poor lives. Growing up is more complicated than that and for a good proportion of these children, the support of families and a good experience in school will be enough to ensure that they have happy and fulfilled childhoods, despite adversity. There will be others not identified in the data who experience harm. In the great snakes and ladders of growing up, families and schools are vital ladders. However, too many vulnerable children do not have these safety nets."

This year’s report has also widened the number of forms of vulnerability from 32 to 37 in a bid to “provide a clearer picture of the numbers of vulnerable children in England”. These 37 forms of vulnerability cover seven broad categories:

  • Children receiving statutory care or support.
  • Children known to have experienced specific personal harm, abuse or exploitation.
  • Children with a disability, ill-health or developmental difficulties, including mental ill-health and SEN.
  • Children in families with characteristics or locations that indicate higher potential likelihood of current and future harm – including poverty and domestic violence.
  • Children who are vulnerable by virtue of their identity or nationality – including gender minority children and refugees.
  • Children in high-risks situations outside the home – including gangs or radicalisation.
  • Children caring for others, including young carers or children who have children themselves.

Commenting on the report's publication this week, Ms Longfield said: “Over a million of the most vulnerable children in England cannot meet their own ambitions because they are being let down by a system that doesn’t recognise or support them – a system that too often leaves them and their families to fend for themselves until crisis point is reached.

“Not every vulnerable child needs state intervention, but this research gives us – in stark detail – the scale of need and the challenges ahead. Meeting them will not be easy or cost-free. It will require additional resources, effectively targeted, so that we move from a system that marginalises vulnerable children to one which helps them.

“Supporting vulnerable children should be the biggest social justice challenge of our time. Every day we see the huge pressures on the family courts, schools and the care systems of failing to take long-term action. The cost to the state is ultimately greater than it should be, and the cost to those vulnerable children missing out on support can last a lifetime.

“We get the society we choose – and at the moment we are choosing to gamble with the futures of hundreds of thousands of children.”

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