22 Jan 2015

New research compares inequalities in UK’s child safeguarding systems

Why are children from poor neighbourhoods more likely to be subject to a child protection intervention than those living in better off areas? And is deprivation the primary cause?

That is what a comprehensive new research programme involving seven UK universities, including The Open University (OU), aims to find out.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the project will compare disparities in child safeguarding in England with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales where child welfare systems and intervention rates differ. It will then explore potential reasons for the inequalities in rates across the UK. Since 2008 there has been an 86% increase in the number of children being investigated over child protection concerns in England. And the number of children spending time in care each year has increased by 10,000 since 2010.

The OU’s involvement will be headed up by Professor of Social Work, Brigid Featherstone, who will lead on the impact strand of this research which will ensure that its findings are communicated to policy makers as well as managers, practitioners and families. She said: “In order to address inequalities in child safeguarding in the UK, it is vital that we take steps to fully understand the situation and communicate with policy makers, managers and families. This comprehensive research aims to make a real difference to the lives of families living in deprivation and seeking to care for their children safely.”

The increase in pressure on child protection services has coincided with the coalition government’s austerity measures which have been implemented since 2010 and are set to continue. In this context of increasing demand and spending cuts affecting family support services, it is particularly important to understand what is driving child welfare inequalities within the UK, and the research aims to shed light on this.

The Nuffield Foundation has awarded a research grant of over £550,000 to the new Centre for Communities and Social Justice (CSJ) at Coventry University to study inequalities in child welfare systems across the UK. Coventry will lead the project that will also involve six partner UK universities including the OU, namely the University of Nottingham, University of Stirling, University of Edinburgh, Queen’s University Belfast, and Cardiff University.

Professor of Social Work, Prof Paul Bywaters, from Coventry University will be overall lead on the project and said: “Almost 5 children in a 1,000 in Wales and Northern Ireland are on a child protection plan or register, but fewer than 4 in 1,000 children in England and fewer than 3 in Scotland. Is this a postcode lottery or the result of deprivation, demography, policy or practice? How do we judge which country’s safeguarding system is working best? This is what this project is aiming to find out. Our findings could lead to fundamental changes in policy and practice for children’s services across UK and internationally.”

The project will begin in April this year and expects to report in 2017.


Notes to editor

The two year project, led by Professor Paul Bywaters and Dr. Geraldine Brady of the new research Centre for Communities and Social Justice, will involve teams in 6 partner universities, the Open University, the University of Nottingham, University of Stirling, University of Edinburgh, Queen’s University Belfast, and Cardiff University.

The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at

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