Measuring the wellbeing of children in care

Views from the frontline and opportunities for change.

Taking a child into care is major step, and one which places a responsibility on the child's new corporate parents to ensure that that child grows up healthy and happy. To this end, local authorities have a legal duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in care, including through the promotion of physical, emotional and mental health.

In 2017, this duty was complemented by the introduction of statutory corporate parenting principles, which require local authorities to consider wellbeing in all of their interactions with children in care.

Children in care are more likely than their peers to experience mental health problems and related negative outcomes. This makes measurement of their wellbeing all the more critical for informing the planning of their care.

Measuring wellbeing can also help to assess how well children are being supported to move on from any trauma they have experienced prior to entering care, and to hold corporate parents to account for their contribution to this. However, concerns about current approaches to wellbeing measurement have led to calls for improvements.

Our approach

With funding from The J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust, NCB conducted research exploring the measurement of wellbeing of children in care. We gathered the views of 114 professionals working with children in care, as well as those of children and young people, through five “children in care councils”.

In line with the diverse literature on this subject, professionals suggested a range of definitions of wellbeing. They generally considered wellbeing to be a holistic concept that encompassed many different areas of children's experiences. Whilst this included aspects of physical and mental health, professionals thought that wellbeing was a broader concept.

Professionals said that they measured children's wellbeing at all ages and stages throughout their journey through care. They did this for a variety of purposes, including for care planning, and to measure progress and outcomes. They explicitly acknowledged the value of doing this to help improve the lives of the children they worked with.

Our findings

Click here to read the full research report

We found widespread use of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), which reflects the requirement on local authorities to report results of the SDQ to Government each year. Whilst participants were aware of a number of other tools, very few reported having used any of them regularly.

There were mixed views on how well the SDQ worked in practice. Challenges included:

  • Reliance on a positive trusting relationship between the child and the person administering the questionnaire, which did not always exist;

  • The questionnaire not being flexible enough to work for children with particular communication needs and experiences; and

  • The questionnaire not taking account of some indicators of wellbeing, such as involvement in afterschool clubs or engagement in exercise, which were seen as important by professionals.

Consequently, many professionals relied on their own bespoke and informal measures and proxy indicators to inform their work with children in care. The SDQ was seen by some as a 'tick box exercise'.