Government is still developing its understanding of the complex challenges involved in supporting vulnerable adolescents. Gaps in knowledge and the lack of a strategic approach mean that government cannot yet say whether its plans to spend a further £2bn will address the needs of families, vulnerable adolescents and children in the most effective way, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

There are around 7.3 million adolescents aged 9-19 years in England. Vulnerable adolescents are at greater risk of experiencing harm. If these adolescents do not receive effective support, from whatever source, at the right time, their problems may become entrenched and require intense and expensive support to reverse or mitigate any harm. The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in 2021 has estimated that the annual social cost of not addressing the needs of all children who have ever needed a social worker is around £23 billion.

For the individual, harmful consequences could include mental health difficulties, periods not being in education, employment or training, or contact with the criminal justice system. The different outcomes often overlap, for example around 72% of children sentenced in 2019-20 were assessed as having mental health concerns, with 71% having communication concerns. There is also variation across the country and by ethnicity.

Support for vulnerable adolescents is provided largely by local bodies. Within central government, the Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for policy for children’s services and education, working with six other departments on its objective to support the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people so no one is left behind.1 The NAO has calculated that the 2021 Spending Review announced plans to spend around £2 billion on a range of additional initiatives which include support for families, vulnerable adolescents and children.2

Central government has a limited understanding of how different risk factors and characteristics combine to cause vulnerability. Available data shows a mixed picture. Referrals of children to secondary mental health services increased by 142% between 2016-17 and 2021-22. The number of children cautioned or sentenced in the criminal justice system fell by 82% (from 85,300 to 15,751) between 2010-11 and 2020-21. Government does not have the information to fully understand what is driving this change.

Central government has a limited knowledge of whether the same adolescents are known to or receiving support from different local services, but has started to try to join up different data sets.

The NAO found that, while departments work together on programmes and initiatives, there is no overall strategic assessment of whether vulnerable adolescents’ needs are being addressed. Without a strategic approach to planning, there is a risk of gaps in the provision of support, or that support from different programmes may overlap.

At local level, there is more to do to improve the effectiveness of new arrangements aimed at joining up the work of local bodies involved in safeguarding children and providing support services. It can be difficult for local bodies to navigate the range of different government programmes, which can lead to confusion at the local level. 

There is no joined-up assessment of the extent to which cumulative government interventions have succeeded in improving outcomes for vulnerable adolescents, and there are gaps in the evidence base of what works well to support adolescents. There is some evidence to show what works to prevent youth offending, but less on how to prevent other adverse outcomes, such as how best to support those at risk of being taken into care.

The NAO recommends that government should build on recent data sharing exercises to improve its understanding of risk factors and adverse outcomes, and should address the gaps in the evidence base of what works well to support vulnerable adolescents.

“Providing the right support to young people at risk of poor outcomes is vital to prevent both harm to individuals, and considerable costs to society, yet gaps in evidence and data mean the Government does not have the understanding it needs of this challenge. Without looking again at its approach, government may not make the best use of the funding it has to improve the chances of these vulnerable young people.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Support for vulnerable adolescents

Notes for editors

  1. The six other departments with policies and programmes that support vulnerable adolescents are The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), the Home Office (HO), The Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS).
  2. The NAO calculates that the 2021 Spending Review announced £2 billion of additional spending which includes initiatives to help prevent the avoidable costs of adverse outcomes for families, vulnerable adolescents and children. There are other existing programmes which provide additional prevention and support services to vulnerable adolescents such as: Violence Reduction Units (£170 million over four years 2019/20 to 2022/23) and the Youth Endowment Fund (£200 million since 2019 over 10 years).
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

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