New research: Popular social work practices must be evaluated to ensure they are working to protect children

23 June 2017

New research published by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) and Local Government Association (LGA) highlights the lack of evidence underpinning some of the practices and approaches that are widely used in the child protection system.1 In the absence of evidence to demonstrate that activities are improving outcomes for children and families, it is difficult to be sure that child protection services are producing good results or providing value for money.


The report argues that, with demand for services increasing rapidly and pressure growing on local budgets, stronger central action is urgently required to help councils evaluate and monitor whether the services they deliver are improving outcomes for children and families and providing value for money.


The study also identifies a number of interventions with proven results that have not been widely publicised or implemented. It highlights the need for more central action to provide clear messages about which approaches have a good track record and which have not been tested that can be used by local councils to inform their work with vulnerable families.


Carey Oppenheim, Chief Executive of EIF, says:


“There is a striking gap between what we know works to protect children and support vulnerable families, and what is happening in our child protection system right now. At a time of shrinking budgets and increasing demand, it seems particularly important to use the evidence to ensure scarce resources are directed towards interventions with the greatest chance of success.


“Evidence is not the only consideration in how local authorities decide what services to deliver. Nevertheless, on balance, families and children who receive interventions shown through robust methods to improve outcomes are more likely to benefit and to a greater degree than those who receive other services.”


Reducing this gap between evidence and local decision-making requires stronger centrally co-ordinated activity to:

  • Supporting the use of evidence by clearly communicating what the evidence tells us.
  • Help build ‘evidence literacy’ among local leaders, commissioners and practitioners.
  • develop and test new approaches to fill crucial gaps in evidence, such as tackling child neglect and the effectiveness of multi-agency models of working.
  • Provide investment and resources to rebuild the analytical capacity that has been pared back in many local areas.


Donna Molloy, Director of dissemination at EIF and one of the report authors, says:


“It is of concern that many local authorities lack the capacity to monitor whether the things they are delivering are working to improve the lives of the most vulnerable children. In both early intervention and children’s social care the lack of analytical resource to understand the nature of local demand, and use the evidence to meet this demand, needs tackling if to see a  shift in  the use of evidence to improve effectiveness in child protection work.


“We also rely too much on evidence from overseas in UK and need to grow the UK evidence base about effective children’s and family services by investing in evaluation of interventions and approaches that are being delivered here. This needs central investment and input and the Government’s planned What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care provides an important opportunity to provide central infrastructure that is needed here.”



Richard Watts, chair of the Children and Young People board at the LGA, said:


“Councils are committed to providing the best possible care for children and their families, but the sector urgently needs more support to understand whether the services we provide are consistently improving outcomes for some our most vulnerable people.


“The scale of the challenge facing councils is clearly evidenced in this report. In the last decade, central government funding has significantly reduced whilst  the number of children on child protection plans has increased 124 per cent between 2002 and 2015. By 2020, councils are expecting a £2 billion funding gap to open in children’s services. The realist for many councils is that right now they are struggling to provide the essential services and simply lack the capacity to robustly evaluate the impact of different approaches.


“The Government’s proposed What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care provides a valuable opportunity to fill this gap at national level, but it is vital that this also provides capacity to boost local learning and evaluation. Councils need to understand what will work in their area, for the specific children and families they are working with and within the resources available to them. It is not always possible or practical to simply transfer a seemingly effective service from an inner city area to a rural county region, and we should not attempt to provide a centrally-focussed, one size fits all solution to the notion of “what works”.


“It is more important than ever that we better understand how to target resources to ensure they are used effectively. But with services for the care and protection of vulnerable children already at breaking point in many areas, government must recognise that additional investment is urgently required to ensure vulnerable children get the appropriate support and protection they need.”