Improving the care system: a massive task that’s worth the effort

1 Sep 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 1 Sep 2022

Photo by BBC Creative on Unsplash
Photo by BBC Creative on Unsplash

There is no single way to maximise the outcomes for children in care. Big improvements are possible, but reform will take time.


Around 450,000 children and young people live in Northern Ireland – and 2,794 of them have been living in care for a year or more.

That means over one in every 200 local kids currently live in care, and have done so for more than 12 months. This matters for many reasons. Life outcomes for children in care are way below those of their peers.

Late last month, the Department of Health published Children in Care in Northern Ireland 2020-21, the latest annual bulletin about these children (with data correct at 30 September 2021). Of those almost 2,800 kids:

  • One sixth (15%) had experienced a placement change during the previous 12 months, which is the lowest in recent years
  • One quarter have a statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN), compared with 6% of the general school population
  • Around 17% of school-aged children and young people had full attendance through the 2020/21 school year, while 13% missed 25 or more school days

The challenges facing children and young people who grow up in care should be a revelation to no-one.

Children who go through the care system have lower educational attainment, are more likely to become teenage parents, more likely to end up unemployed, end up in prison or homeless.

However, just because the details are unsurprising does not mean they aren’t shocking.


The DoH report notes that children in care were more likely to be suspended from school than their peers, with 7% (134) suspended in 2020/21, compared with 1.2% of the general school population. Almost one in ten male children in care (9%) were suspended at some point, compared with 5% of females.

The bulletin says that 115 young people who had been in care for more than a year sat GCSE exams in 2020-21, while another 46 were eligible to sit exams but did not sit these exams due to special educational needs, having been placed on the EOTAS [Education Other Than At School] scheme, or other welfare issues.

“Of those who sat exams, 33% (38 young people) had a statement of SEN. This was substantially higher than the previous year, when 17% had a SEN statement... 94% of the young people attained at least one GCSE at grades A*- G. This compares with 99% of the school leaver population in Northern Ireland (Year 12-14).

“Just under half (45%) of young people in care attained five or more GCSEs at grades A* - C, with 34% achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A* - C including GCSE English and Maths. These figures were substantially lower than for the school leaver population in 2020/21, with 92% achieving 5 or more GCSEs at grades A* - C and 78% achieving this feat including GCSE English and Maths.”

Almost 100 of the 2,794 children in care for at least a year had a substance abuse problem, including 14% of those who were 16 or over.

What is being done

Help for children in care cuts across every government department and every area of policy, because the outcomes for these kids lag behind in every area.

That is why mooted changes in the justice system, for instance, will be very welcome if their implementation comes to pass. Efforts to modernise how police, the courts and other aspects of justice deal with young people are not only aimed at children in care – but, given the proportion of children in care who come into contact with the law, they could see great benefits from reform.

In similar fashion, any work that brings down waiting lists for Special Educational Needs assessments will also benefit children in care a great deal. The flipside, of course, is that while those service struggle, kids in care are affected more badly than most.

And it’s not just government that has a role to play. The third sector already offers vital support and, with greater resources, could do more still.

Organisations like Voice Of Young People In Care (VOYPIC), Barnardo’s, Children in NI and many more – not to mention the Children’s Commissioner – put a huge effort into improving the lives of children in care, via both services and campaigning.

Those organisations – along with care-experienced children – helped Executive Ministers produce A Life Deserved, a February 2021 governmental strategy for looked-after children which could make a big difference to the lives of thousands of children, now and in the future (albeit having an actual government might be necessary to take the strategy forwards).

However, there have been strategies for children in care before. Is this one different? Can it be transformative?

This is a complicated area with so many factors that there will not be one single fix. So, while this long-view strategy is important, so are some other things.


Last October, Health Minister Robin Swann agreed to facilitate a fundamental review of children’s social care services.

The Independent Review of Children's Social Services (Children's Services) commenced in February and is expected to finish early next summer.

Social services do not exclusively deal with children in care – but clearly they are hugely relevant to kids in care, to the extent that VOYPIC are one of two third-sector organisations facilitating the review panel’s engagement with children and their parents/guardians (the other being Children in NI). The panel’s latest newsletter notes that “the experiences of care experienced young people [are] a key part of informing the Review.”

Per the DoH:

The Review will be a fundamental examination of Children’s Services, with a focus on quality, equity, resilience and sustainability to ensure that Children’s Services are:

  • capable of responding to current and potential future demand/pressures and the level and complexity of need;
  • effectively meeting the needs of the children, young people and families with a range of vulnerabilities and sufficiently and supportively engaging them in decisions affecting their lives; and
  • adequately supporting staff and carers in the exercise of their statutory and other duties and in the course of their caring responsibilities.

The panel is still almost a year away from completing their review. That will probably be followed by another strategy, this one for children’s social services. By that time, the strategy specifically for children in care will be two and a half years old. Hopefully it will have seen some progress.

The scale of the challenges for children in care are vast and comprehensive. Addressing them is not something that can be done overnight – but it can be done.

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