24/05/2017 03:22

The unit costs of children’s social care services

curtis-lesley-90x135By Lesley Curtis, Research Fellow at PSSRU Kent

The continuing drive for efficiency savings in the face of rising demand for children’s social care services requires that councils keep a tight rein on how much they are spending. Indeed, a key objective of the Department for Education’s innovation programme, launched in 2013 is to ‘achieve value for money’ while providing better life chances for children receiving help from the social care system.  As well as ensuring that services are effective, how much they cost is an important factor when deciding how to allocate budgets.

The Unit Costs of Health and Social Care volumes, currently with over 11,000 readers, are a key point of reference for those keeping a careful eye on costs. They are designed to support and improve policy by providing good quality unit costs for a wide range of health and social care services.  Our unit costs are also used by service providers and commissioners for benchmarking, price setting and allocating budgets.

The whole of chapter 6 of the report focuses on children’s services (e.g. care homes, parenting programmes and early years’ teacher classroom management programmes). And in chapter 8 we include care packages for children with different needs, where the unit of interest is the individual and the combination of services they use, rather than the costs of providing a particular service or professional. We also include a schema for a children’s social worker in chapter 11 and CAMHS teams in chapter 12, both key in the provision of services for children and young people’s mental health.

How we do it

A variety of approaches are used when putting together these volumes. Often we draw on studies carried out by other organisations. For example, this year we have improved the costs of adoption, using research carried out by the Centre for Child and Family Research (CCFR) commissioned by Coram Family as part of one of the Department for Education’s Innovation Programme projects. The unit costs of five adoption sub-processes have been estimated following the child’s journey from care planning, and the adopter’s journey from the decision to adopt, through to the child’s placement. The table below (adapted from Section 6.8, p. 80) shows costs to the local authority: the Unit Costs of Health and Social Care 2016 also shows the costs for voluntary sector organisations.

Average costs (£) of local authority processes at 2015/16 values

Adoption sub-processes
Local authority adoption agencies
‘Standard’ case
‘Difficult to place’ case
Adoption planning
Preparation, assessment of adopters
Adoption panel
Linking & matching
Placement of the child
Assessment for adoption support

Secondary sources of data are also used, such as where we combine data from Section 251 of the local authority expenditure return with activity data to calculate the costs of children’s homes and foster care. Led by policy requirements, we undertake some primary research, often working with service-providing organisations. This year, plans have already been put in place to work with the Children’s Society to look at the costs of children’s advocacy. We are hoping to collate the costs of different models of advocacy provision, to assist in identifying underlying cost drivers, and to provide benchmark prices for organisations commissioning and providing advocacy services.  Individual organisations providing costs will, of course, be kept anonymous.

An important part of our work is to keep our estimates current. One method of doing this is to use an inflator to uprate costs calculated from previous years. We delete Unit Cost schema that are based on data that are more than ten years old until new research or other data are available.  One important task also for 2017, responding to an important policy-related gap, is to create an inflator specifically for uprating children’s social care services.

The Unit Costs of Health and Social Care volumes have been used to inform policy decisions in health and social care services for more than 20 years. Over that time, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance of spending limited budgets wisely. Support from the Department for Education has allowed us to continue to inform children’s social care policy and provision through the provision of good quality up-to-date unit costs.


We welcome feedback from readers and organisations who can help us improve our unit costs data for both adults’ and children’s services.

Recent blogs:

All in a year’s work – Unit Costs of Health and Social Care 2016 just in time for Christmas.

Unit Costs across Europe

The Unit Costs programme is funded by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme (Unit costs of health and social care, 035/0093) with a small amount of additional resources from the Department of Education.

Mixing up the welfare

By Nadia Brookes, Research Fellow at PSSRU Kent

I’m currently involved with a Norwegian Research Council funded project looking at how the national welfare model influences how EU policies are interpreted in the UK, Norway and Germany. The focus is on the EU directives around public procurement issued in 2014 and which were supposed to become part of member state national legislation or ‘transposed’ by 2016. These regulations are at the heart of the internal market and could have a big impact on public services. Our project looks at how implementation played out in the public and political arena, and in particular the influence on the health and social service sector.

I know, a project that involves the European Union, a big turn-off for at least half the population (according to the referendum), and public procurement, the buying of goods and services, isn’t that a bit dull? Why does it deserve any attention? Well, it involves big money (in 2013/14 the public sector spent £242 billion on the procurement of goods and services) and things that impact on our daily lives, like hospital and GP services and social work services for older people, people with disabilities and children.

The research, funded by the Norwegian Research Council, led by the Institute for Social Research in Norway with the University of Kent, and the University of Munster in Germany (a prize for guessing which Esping-Andersen model each country represents), involves a review of parliamentary debates and consultations about the directives, media analysis, and interviews with policy makers and other stakeholders.

When the directives came out they were wholeheartedly embraced by the Coalition as fitting with UK government priorities of economic growth and deficit reduction particularly the streamlining of processes, and were even implemented early in February 2015 (for health there was a delay until April 2016).  Obviously for the UK the research will now be done against a very different back-drop than when it was first conceived.

But what if Brexit does mean exit at some point in the future? Will the directive which became part of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 be recalled and undone? When the UK leaves the European Union new agreements will have to be made, it is almost certain that a condition of a favourable trade deal and access to the Single Market will require the UK to continue to have public procurement legislation closely aligned with the wider EU regulations. Even if we focus our attention outside the EU there will still be different sets of procurement rules to consider and we’re still likely to have to open up opportunities to organisations outside of the UK….watch this space….