Safeguarding: School referrals drive sharp rise in children in need

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

More than 10,000 cases of child criminal exploitation and a dramatic rise in referrals from schools have contributed to rising levels of children in need.

Official figures for the 2021/22 financial year show that there were 404,310 children in need, an increase of 4.1% on 2020/21. This includes 50,920 children on protection plans, an increase of 1.8% (DfE, 2022).

As part of these figures, for the first time councils have been required to record the number of cases in which child criminal exploitation was identified as a factor. This includes cases of criminals grooming and exploiting children into county lines drug-dealing, or to commit other crimes like shoplifting, car theft or serious violence.

The latest figures show that child criminal exploitation was identified as a factor in 10,140 cases.

Children in need are a legally defined group assessed as needing help and protection as a result of risks to their development or health. It includes those on child in need plans, child protection plans, looked after by local authorities, care-leavers and disabled children.

The latest figures show that the number of referrals of children to social care has increased in 2021/22 to 650,270, up from 597,760 – a 9% rise.

While the highest number of referrals continues to come via the police service, the notable increase in referrals has been driven by schools.

After a dip in overall referral levels from schools due to Covid-19 attendance restrictions in 2020/21, school referrals saw a 59% increase in 2021/22 – up by nearly 48,000 referrals.

The latest school referrals figure of 129,090 represents the highest since recording began in 2014 and is up from 81,180 in 2020/21 and 117,010 in 2019/20.

Post-Covid spike: The DfE figures show the sources of referrals to social care. Referrals from schools dipped dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic, but have since spiked with record levels of referrals in the year to March 2022 (source: DfE, 2022).

The figures reflect widespread predictions at the height of the Covid pandemic that school staff would be less able to spot risks facing young people and refer them for support because of lockdowns, self-isolation, and home learning.

Safeguarding factors involved

The DfE’s figures reveal the safeguarding factors identified after assessment, with most referrals involving more than one issue.

The two most common factors involved in referrals in 2021/22 were domestic abuse and concerns over parental mental health. The most common factors are:

  • Domestic abuse (parent victims): 160,690
  • Parent mental health concerns: 158,330
  • Emotional abuse: 102,900
  • Child mental health concerns: 87,750
  • Neglect: 82,950
  • Parental alcohol misuse: 70,310
  • Parental drug misuse: 67,010
  • Domestic abuse (child victims): 57,260
  • Learning disability (concerns about child): 54,670
  • Adult on child physical abuse: 47,980

The number of cases in which children’s mental health was a concern has risen notably year-on-year – from 77,390 to 87,750 – a 13% increase. Elsewhere, other factors include self-harm (27,970), sexual abuse (33,990), child sexual exploitation (16,330), and being a young carer (18,110).

A focus on child criminal exploitation

In August, Headteacher Update reported how a record number of children have fallen victim to criminal exploitation or modern slavery, something that has been driven in part by a “rapid increase” in county lines drug-dealing.

Children aged from 15 to 17 usually make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved, but gangs often approach victims before the age of 11 in order to build relationships and trust. The grooming techniques are similar to those we see in cases of sexual exploitation (see Headteacher Update, 2019).

Common signs include children being anxious, frightened, possessing more than one mobile phone, carrying large amounts of cash, being seen with people who are older than them, and missing school.

The Children’s Society warned this week that the 10,140 cases of child criminal exploitation in the latest figures will be “the tip of the iceberg”.

Sarah Wayman, the charity’s head of policy and impact, said: “The (child exploitation) statistics give a glimpse into the huge problems that exist. Behind them lie horrific stories of children groomed by criminals who use threats and violence to force them into crimes like carrying drugs in county lines operations.

“And yet, the figures do not reveal the whole picture as professionals are still failing to consistently identify and share information about risks facing young people. Young victims are too often treated as criminals and police may not routinely refer them to social services.

Spending by councils on early support for families has halved over the last decade according to the charity. It wants to see renewed investment as well as action to define “child criminal exploitation in law and strengthening the proposed Online Safety Bill make it a requirement for online platforms to tackle grooming of children to commit crime.

Ms Wayman added: “More needs to be done to protect children, including earlier identification of risks such as exploitation to commit crime, sexual abuse, mental ill-health and domestic abuse.But this requires significant investment.

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