Background to the report

There are approximately 7.3 million 9- to 19-year-olds in England. There is no single definition of adolescence; it covers more than one educational phase as well as growing maturity and independence. Some adolescents are vulnerable to seriously adverse, avoidable outcomes such as physical or mental harm (including exploitation), leading to entry to the care system; contact with the criminal justice system; periods of not being in education, employment or training (NEET); or severe mental health difficulties. 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.

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When vulnerable adolescents are not identified and provided with effective and timely support the costs to society can be significant. The government does not know the full costs of these adverse outcomes. In 2021 the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care estimated the lifetime social cost of adverse outcomes for all children who have ever needed a social worker at £23 billion a year. This estimate covers all children who have ever needed a social worker, includes the cost of children’s services and makes an estimate of the consequences, but it does not include costs for those children who have never had a social worker. It nevertheless provides an indication of the scale of the cost of adverse outcomes for society.

Universal services, such as attendance at school, are the first line of public support for all young people. However, for some this will not be enough and specific programmes will be needed to provide additional support or interventions to promote their welfare, help them achieve better life outcomes and avoid costly intervention and support later. Support is largely delivered through local bodies, which work in partnership to identify, protect and safeguard children.

Several government departments have lead policy responsibilities that address the challenges facing vulnerable adolescents and those around them, for which they fund specific programmes to be delivered by local bodies. Because of the complexity and variety of the challenges involved, departments do not treat vulnerable adolescents as one group with a single, specific cross‑government policy programme.

Scope of the report

Because of the potential costs to adolescents and society arising from serious adverse outcomes, we examined the information government uses to understand these issues and how well government bodies are working together to plan and deliver support to vulnerable adolescents who are at serious risk of avoidable adverse outcomes. Our report sets out evidence on the complexity of challenges facing vulnerable adolescents, the cumulative impact of adverse outcomes for adolescents and society, and the challenges for government to provide effective support and deliver value for money.

This differs from our more usual approach in which we would examine the value for money of a specific government programme or intervention. Our report does not consider the quality of locally delivered services, such as children’s social care or policing.

Report conclusions

Identifying and supporting vulnerable adolescents to reduce the risk of adverse outcomes is complex. But if it is done successfully, the potential savings in damage to lives and costs to other public services are very great. We have calculated that the government has announced the spending of approximately £2 billion through seven different departments on various additional programmes which support families, vulnerable adolescents and children. Our examination suggests that there are gaps in government’s understanding of the relationship between risk factors and adverse outcomes for vulnerable adolescents and what works to support them.

Government departments work together on certain programmes and interventions, such as Supporting Families, or targeted spending such as the Violence Reduction Units, but there is no overall strategic approach, so government does not know whether there are gaps or overlaps in the support for vulnerable adolescents. Local services are putting in place arrangements to join up their efforts but there are signs that this is not yet effective. These gaps in knowledge and lack of a strategic approach mean it is not possible for government to know whether it is currently providing value for money and addressing the needs of adolescents as effectively as it could.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (11 Nov 2022)

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