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Each year, Scottish Government publishes a whole host of statistics providing information on the size of population groups over the previous year.

The “Children’s Social Work Statistics” are published each spring and offer information “on children and young people statistics, including data on looked after children, children on the child protection register and young people in secure accommodation”.

Today is the day Scotland gets to see the numbers for 2022 for the first time.

It has been three years since the publication of the Independent Care Review’s conclusions and ‘the promise’ was made.

So, it is fair to hope the numbers will provide an increased understanding of whether the promise is being kept, with experiences and outcomes of children across the country improving. Whether via numbers decreasing or increasing, and vice versa, Scotland could say with confidence that change is happening and in ways that is improving the lives of children and families.

Some of Scotland’s indicators are looking positive

Before getting into the statistics, it is clear government is continuing to use ‘system’ language as descriptors, missing an opportunity to make a relatively straightforward change that helps challenge stigma.

Regardless, these national numbers will be used to make judgments and statements on improvements, and work still to be done.

And, on first look, there are some good indicators.

The total number of children “looked after” decreased by 5% in 2022 when compared to 2020-2021. This is the lowest number of children in Scotland’s ‘care system’ since 2005.

The largest proportion of the 12,596 children were in kinship care (34%), closely followed by foster care (33%) and then by those living with parents (21%).

Most children living with families, just like the Independent Care Review demanded, and was promised in 2020.

The number of young people in ‘continuing care’ increased by 24%, as did eligibility for, and receipt of, after care (by 10% and 2% respectively).

And the number of children in secure care decreased by 3%.

Page 81 of ‘the promise’ makes clear that “placing children in highly restricted environments must be used only when necessary” so it is good news that the numbers of children in secure care are reducing.

Although three percent is not huge in statistical terms, it has the potential to make a huge difference for the young people it refers to - whilst demonstrating a new way of offering supporting – so long as each young person was living in care settings appropriate for their needs.

And that is what is missing with a statistical lens this narrow.

To keep the promise, Scotland needs to know more

Yet for Scotland to be confident that the promise is being kept, it needs to know far more than statistics and numbers can provide.

Every single number published relates to a child, young person and family. Scotland doesn’t know if the settings the young people left for were more appropriate for their needs when they got there and settled in.

The Independent Care Review illustrated beyond doubt the best way to find out children and young people’s experiences is to ask them.

It also made clear Scotland needs to find a way to embed what children say, think and feel into the way it works nationally and locally.

This will shore up the gap between evidence and understanding – as they can still feel very far away from each other. The Promise Scotland’s contribution to that work is the ‘Doing Data Differently’ Project and you can read (and listen) more about on our website.

Quantifying Scotland’s ‘care system’ matters, but it is not enough to count children and families, and using annual statistics as the primary mechanism of understanding of experience at the national level is out of date and unhelpful.

Because not every single person will have the same experience as the national understanding and there is a disconnect between the national stories and the real-life experiences. Put simply, that disconnect can be so wide as to risk telling stories that simply are not true.

The statistics release offers a wealth of data and information to combine with other sources to deepen and broaden understanding. They cover the period when Scotland was coming out of COVID restrictions, and this set of exceptional circumstances must be considered alongside the numbers.

Stories, statistics, and seeing the bigger picture

Over the coming days and weeks, The Promise Scotland will use today’s publication as a single source of data alongside other sources of information and knowledge about the lives of children and families, to help understand where the numbers do reflect reality, and where they don’t.

Qualitative understanding of experience and outcomes needs to gain the same status as quantification, with all sources of data and information combined to provide a broad and a deep understanding, accessible by decision makers and practitioners alike.

This is necessary to see the whole story that sits behind the headline statistics.

Returning to the 3% reduction in the number of young people in secure care, it is a 13% decrease in children from Scotland going into secure care that has driven this overall reduction. Yet, over the same time-period, there was a 14% increase of children from outside the country.

Although Scotland is on making improvements in the way it uses secure care, cross border and distance placements are increasing - something that the promise made clear must be coming to an end.

Without both a focus on efforts in Scotland and on reductions of ‘long distance placements’ there is a risk – or even likelihood – that “the provision of therapeutic, trauma informed support (in secure care)” the promise demanded will not be realised.

To keep the promise, and to know the promise is being kept, Scotland needs to use all the information it has consistently and robustly, and then find ways to fill the gaps. Over and over again, until there is no disconnect between the stories that are told and the experiences of children and families themselves.

The annual publication date of the statistics offers reminder that Scotland must do better - not just in its practice but in its understanding, its engagement, and its support, of those working directly with children and their families, and of those whose job it is to provide support and tell stories. For lives to improve, the whole ‘system’ needs to shift.

About the author

Claire Stuart - Head of Insights
Photo credit: Sarah Maclean

Claire Stuart

Head of Insights

Claire leads the Insights Team and is a member of The Promise Scotland’s Senior Leadership Team. The work she leads splits into two parallel programmes:

  • data, information and evidence used to track and monitor Scotland’s progress to #KeepThePromise and,
  • data, information and evidence as improvement tools across the change landscape.