The devil is in the detail

31 March 2017

What the latest round of Scottish Government's stats on looked after children do and don't tell us

"Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable," according to the late US author Mark Twain. This is why when reading research or looking at data, I treat them with some trepidation.

Scottish Government statistics about children and young people living in and leaving care, released this week, are no different. Stats only tell us so much, and particularly when the subject matter is complicated, they should be used with caution.

Looked after children

At first glance, there seems little change from last year. 15,317 children are 'looked after' in Scotland, slightly fewer than last year. The proportions living with foster carers, in residential accommodation, at home with their birth parent(s), and in kinship care (with friends and relatives) appear largely unchanged.

But if we look more closely, the stats pose some interesting questions about how the looked after system is evolving:

  • 2016 was the first time in over a decade that the number of children 'accommodated' by local authorities (living away from a parent) fell;
  • Despite this, the proportion of children 'looked after' and living with friends and relatives (kinship care) continued to increase in 2015-16;
  • Kinship has grown from 20% in 2009 to 28% in 2016, as proportion of 'in care' population;
  • And this is just the national picture - at a local level there are wide and interesting variations in the growth of kinship care;
  • Kinship care figures only capture children living with friends or relatives who are formally 'looked after' by a local authority. Many other children live in 'informal kinship' care arrangements, without the day-to-day involvement of a local authority. Would the differences between local authorities be so stark if we knew more details?;
  • Kinship and 'at home' numbers together mean we have over 8,000 children (53% of the total looked after population);
  • Legislation, policy and guidance are clear that there should be no difference in the eligibility of looked after children to access services and supports (from all of their corporate parents including local authorities and health boards) due to the type of setting they live in;
  • In reality, children who are looked after 'at home' or in a kinship arrangement unfortunately have more difficulties accessing such services;
  • Children in care are less likely to have a care plan if they are looked after in kinship care or 'at home', than in other types of placement.

Taking these issues together highlights the need for good quality support for families and communities, as this is where many of our children are living.


In 2015 new legislation came into effect for 'care leavers' (those who cease to be 'looked after' when or after they turn 16). One important change saw eligibility for aftercare support (including transition to independence) extended up to an individual's 26th birthday. These stats take account of this, explaining why there is a sharp increase in numbers eligible for aftercare (from 3,599 young people last year, to 4,602 now).

There are other positives within these stats too – such as increased numbers of young people going to university, and homelessness dropping. What concerns me however are the gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the circumstances of many of our care leavers.

Needs not being met

Beyond the 'eligibility to aftercare services' number, the largest increase in the stats is young people in the 'not known' or 'not receiving a service' categories. This makes it difficult for us to understand how things are actually working for them, in terms of housing, health and education or employment. What does it tell us when so many aged 19 plus are included in the stats as 'eligible for aftercare', but marked as 'not receiving a service'? It would be interesting to know how many young people requested aftercare services, and were found not to have eligible needs.

The stats tell us messages about how the Scottish Government's Staying Put 2013 approach, advocating for a smooth transition for care experienced young people into adulthood at the right time for them, is translating into practice. There are small but encouraging increases in numbers of young people leaving care to live with former foster carers, or in residential care. Experiences and life chances are much more positive for young people when they are supported, enabled and empowered to remain in stable care placements for longer. It is concerning therefore that the numbers of 15 and 16 year olds leaving care for their own tenancies have increased.

Moving to answers

These figures provide some insight into how Scotland's population of looked after children is changing over time. But it's only a snapshot. More data and contextual information is required if we really want to scratch beneath the surface of the issues, and begin to understand what will improve outcomes for our looked after children. The devil may be in the details, but it's in those details that we'll start to move from questions, to some answers.

Read the Scottish Government stats here

Lizzie Morton is a Policy Associate at CELCIS.

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