Pressures on children’s social care: a systems response


Vicky Baker | System Design Specialist | @vicbakersocial

Claire Baxter | Senior Associate | @ClaireBaxNotts

Variations in social care demands and activity

At the end of January, the National Audit Office (NAO) published findings on its analysis of pressures on children’s social care in England, with a specific focus on demands, activities and overspend. It concluded that variations between local authorities in social care demand and activity were down to more than local socio-economic factors and national policy changes. Instead, it calculated that local authority characteristics including: ‘custom and practice in children’s social care, local market conditions and characteristics of children and their families’ accounted for around 44% of the variation in how local authorities were responding to demand, with local levels of deprivation accounting for 15% and national policy just 10%.

The report also called on the Department for Education to gain a better understanding of the drivers of demand and to implement a plan to reduce the variation in how local authorities respond to it. Commentators have warned against passing the buck to councils – with budgets being stretched to breaking point and tasked with supporting an increasing number of families feeling the effects of austerity. We certainly don’t disagree; every day we hear from our local authority partners about the significant challenges they face in the context of harsh welfare reforms. But the NAO findings also resonated.

The Role of The System

At the Dartington Service Design Lab, we’ve been working with four local authorities to use system dynamics to understand the drivers of a growing care population. Our hypothesis, like the NAO’s, is that variations cannot be wholly explained by environmental factors and that local policies, practices and system “behaviours” are a vital piece of the puzzle. Our work to date shows that local authorities share many unhelpful system behaviours – such as the use of agency workers to plug the vacancy gap, a fix that frequently fails – as well as behaviours that are specific to each, some working to stabilise and some to destabilise the care population. It is only through understanding these behaviours that local authorities can intervene, to disrupt or to bolster them.

So, in this, we agree with the NAO. However, there’s a note of caution: local processes and practice are key, and often overlooked drivers of variation, but our own research has found that poverty still remains the single biggest predictor of rates of care. It needs to remain high up on the national agenda. 

At the local level, making a distinction between ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ demands (as the NAO report does) fails to appreciate that responding to crisis is always about exercising skilled professional judgement. More does need to be done to understand drivers, but the approach recommended by the report should be treated with caution. Any top-down, DfE exercise using individual records will only be as good as the indicators used. The DfE Primary Need Codes currently in use, including ‘Family in Acute Stress’ and ‘Family Dysfunction’ fail to provide the nuance needed to build an accurate picture of demand. Our experience also shows that meaningful insights, and critically, effective local responses, have to be generated in partnership with the frontline and using a mixture of methods, not just quantitative analyses.

Working with complexity

In his response to the NAO report, Professor of Social Work Paul Bywaters highlights an area neglected by the report – the complexity of issues faced by local authorities. System dynamics is a methodology which embraces complexity and can build local authority analytical capacity, particularly in relation to understanding drivers of behaviour.

System dynamics isn’t a silver bullet – the strategies it identifies for safely reducing demand still have to be implemented well. But in the context of a 49.1% reduction in central government funding since 2010/11, local authorities are forced to cut services and centralise functions which, in the long-term, can contribute to poorer provision and higher spend. A DfE response that helps shine a light on the complexity that local authority children’s services face is vital. The NAO’s report highlights important gaps in knowledge, but the conversation needs to change from one of how to hold councils to account, to how to support them to work differently. 

To find out more about how the Lab is using system dynamics to model the drivers of care, you can read our insights report or contact Vicky Baker at

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