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This Briefing offers a short overview of what is known about instability in the lives of looked after children, what the Stability Index tells us and what needs to change to improve outcomes for children in care.

All children looked after by the State must, by definition, experience some form of instability and disruption as they move from the care, or lack of it, of their family to the care offered by their Local Authority. Concern arises when instability continues after the children have become looked after.

In 2017 the Children’s Commissioner began publishing the Stability Index (1) ‘to encourage councils to hold themselves to account for children moving around the system and to work toward improving the system and ultimately the lives of children in care.’

The Background

The issue of instability and its impact on children in care is neither new nor misunderstood. In their review of the literature Hannon, Wood and Bazalgette (2010) (2) identified a longstanding range of studies that set out the factors that have historically created instability for children in care and the impact that this has had.

Contextually, they note that: ‘There is now a substantial body of academic evidence that provides a longer-term and more nuanced perspective on looked after children’s lives, taking into account the nature of their pre-care experiences and comparing them with more appropriate control groups. This evidence shows that care can be a positive intervention for many groups of children.’

What works for looked after children can be briefly summarised as: a secure attachment, good enough parenting (offering warmth and consistent boundaries) and stability (i.e. pretty much what works for all children).

What can militate against these positive experiences are a range of factors including: delay before coming into care leading to greater exposure to pre care adversity and/or trauma; delay in the process of coming onto care; instability whilst in care leading to multiple (unplanned) placements or failed attempts at reunification; instability within residential care as a result of staff turnover; a lack of good quality foster placements, a lack of mental health support and changes of significant support agencies in the child’s life i.e. school, GP, friends, clubs and activities.

The Stability Index 2018

Despite the emphasise on ‘permanence’ for children in care in recent years the Stability Index makes for sobering reading.

Most children in care experience some kind of instability throughout the course of a year: placement move, school change, social worker change. Only a quarter of children in care did not experience one or more of these sources of instability.

A significant group of children in care, 7,500 or approximately 10%, experienced multiple changes in a year. Nearly 19,000 children in care experience 2 or more social worker changes in a year.

Some children experienced repeated instability over the 2 years the Index has been conducted and, over the longer term, most children in care experience a placement move.

The children who experience instability are up to 3 times more likely to experience further instability in the future.

Key issues for Local Authorities to seek to address are: changes of social worker (the single biggest source of instability) especially where there is a high turnover of staff; comparison with similar local authorities reveals wide variations in placement change and the reasons for this are unclear. There is a correlation between stability and better performing schools.

In addition it is known that teenage children, children with Special Educational Needs and social, emotional and mental health needs and children whose initial legal status was a police protection order, an emergency protection order or a criminal justice order are the most likely to experience instability.

Thousands of children in care do not appear to be enrolled at school at both the start and end of the academic year and it is unclear why this should be the case.

There are some limitations to the Stability Index that are worth considering: it does not record residential staff turnover; it is not able to differentiate between good and bad changes or well managed versus badly managed changes, it does not consider the impact of losing friends or relatives as a consequence of becoming looked after and  it does not consider the changes built into the system as opposed to those arising from placement upheaval (a child may be allocated an intake social worker, then  a generalist social worker, a fostering or adoption social worker and/or a social worker on the 16+ team within 2 years – this may make good sense for the local authority but has a significant, albeit unintended, set of consequences for the child). In addition, it does not consider the impact on children of moves between being looked after and then returning home only to have to re-enter care later or whether the children themselves are ‘blamed’ for the change (challenging behaviour, making allegations or absconding).


It is clear that the issue of a lack of stability for children in care is of long standing and appears resistant to reform or reorganisation. The children’s commissioner is seeking to address this by challenging local authorities to demonstrate how they will use the Index to drive improvement in outcomes for children in care. The commissioner will also seek to work with the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care to gather evidence as to what will improve the experience and life of children in care and will be asking OFSTED to require evidence from local authorities on matters relating to the stability of their looked after children amongst other measures.


(1) Children’s Commissioner: Stability Index 2018

(2) Demos: In Loco Parentis 2010

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