FeaturesTime to level up

Time to level up

Barnardo’s new chief executive, Lynn Perry MBE, believes a local approach can help make fairer the system for children in care.

The care system exists to support children who cannot live with their birth parents. At its best, it can protect children from harm and help them recover from traumatic early experiences. At Barnardo’s, we know from our direct experience in supporting thousands of children in care across the UK that one of the greatest challenges they face is instability. For far too many children, living in care can feel like being ‘bounced around’ in the system, with frequent changes of home leaving them feeling endlessly unsettled.

Help needed from the start

In his first speech as prime minister, Boris Johnson spoke of a need to ‘level up across Britain’. I firmly believe that for this vision to succeed, we need to achieve lasting change for the country’s most vulnerable children – by stepping in earlier to help families who are struggling, and by improving support for children who need to be placed with a foster family or in residential care.

The government’s recently published review of the children’s social care system in England (MacAlister, 2022) means we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to give vulnerable young people the same opportunities everyone expects for their own children.

Children and young people are taken into care when they cannot remain at home. This is either because it is unsafe for them to be there or because their parents are unable to look after them. Some of the most common reasons for a child or young person to be taken into care include abuse, neglect, family breakdown or the illness or disability of a parent or child.

We need to achieve lasting change for the country’s most vulnerable children – by stepping in earlier

The number of children in care now sits at a record high of more than 80,000 in England alone (NICE, 2021), and many of these young people carry burdens that young shoulders shouldn’t have to bear. They are three times less likely to be in education, employment or training by the time they reach 19, and nearly half of children in care have a mental health disorder (NICE, 2021). We cannot tackle this inequality without making sure that effective early support is at the heart of the care system. 

This important review shows the children’s social care system urgently needs reform. Specifically, it rightly recommends prioritising new investment in early help for families, with the review calling for multidisciplinary family support teams in communities. These would work with schools or family hubs to deliver comprehensive support packages from the moment families begin to face difficulties, whether that involves supporting victims of domestic abuse, providing mental health support or helping families with issues such as housing and debt.

Through Barnardo’s network of children’s centres and family hubs, we know it is possible to help families access crucial support before things reach crisis point. Community practitioners such as health visitors, school nurses, community nursery nurses and family support workers all play a vital role in helping to strengthen the essential bonds that make for stronger and safer families.

As a society, we need to provide parents and carers with the ‘village’ it takes to raise a child – whether that’s help with nutrition and mental health, or support with problems such as poverty or domestic abuse. We need to make sure families get what they need, when they need it, to achieve sustainable positive change in their lives.

Money well spent

Early support also makes sound financial sense. Barnardo’s research shows that providing intensive and tailored support to families through community-based family hubs can save the taxpayer millions of pounds a year – and, most importantly, create better futures for children and families. An analysis of our Isle of Wight family hubs last year showed that for every £1 invested in the service, the benefit is about £2.60 – saving the state the equivalent of just over £1m per year (Smith, 2021).

With the impact of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis threatening their future prospects, urgent support for families has never been more necessary.

The report makes a range of recommendations about how to improve care for children who do need to be placed with relatives, foster families or in residential settings. It also considers how we need improve support for young people when they leave care, including helping them find a suitable place to live. This is something Barnardo’s and our charity partner IKEA UK documented in detail last year through our No place like home report (Fortune and Smith, 2021).

The report, based on direct interviews with young people supported by Barnardo’s, found care leavers are too often placed in unsafe and unsuitable accommodation – with poor conditions ranging from extreme mould to exposure to abuse.

We know that many young people who have grown up in care experience loneliness and isolation, and we welcome the review’s emphasis on building relationships that last a lifetime. We all know how important it is to have someone we can depend on throughout our lives, whether that is a parent, another relative, or a trusted friend.

The government’s review sets out the aim that by 2027 no child should leave care without at least two loving relationships. We pride ourselves on being a caring country – a country that supports its most vulnerable. It therefore cannot be right that children growing up in care are much less likely to gain good qualifications, enter employment or have good mental health. It cannot be right that children who experience the care system are more likely to become homeless or end up in prison. It cannot be right that, during their most unsettled moments, children in care can be passed from pillar to post. And it cannot be right that we, as a society, allow all this and more to happen without demanding change.

Correcting this fundamental inequality for children in care is a major undertaking. However, if the government can get the system of care and support right for these children, then we can truly start to ‘level up’ opportunities for all, right across the country.

Lynn Perry MBE is chief executive of Barnardo’s. She has worked at the charity for 13 years, most recently as interim co-CEO and before that as corporate director for children’s services.



Fortune R, Smith N. (2021) No place like home: report IKEA. Barnardo’s. See: www.barnardos.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-05/No-Place-Like-Home-Report-IKEA.pdf (accessed 4 July 2022). 

MacAlister J. (2022) The independent review of children’s social care: final report. The independent review of children’s social care. See:   https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/The-independent-review-of-childrens-social-care-Final-report.pdf

NICE. (2021) Looked-after children and young people. See: nice.org.uk/guidance/ng205 (accessed 4 July 2022). 

Smith N. (2021) It takes a village: the case for family support in every community. Barnardo’s. See: www.barnardos.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-09/It-Takes-a-Village-the-case-for-family-support-in-every-community.pdf (accessed 4 July 2022).


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