Understanding Residential Care for Children in Care in England

Understanding Residential Care for Children in Care in England


This work was carried out by What Works for Children’s Social Care (former organisation that merged to become Foundations) and was commissioned by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

The report found that certain demographics are over-represented in residential care and especially in the number of those who were identified as needing provision for SEN – over 90%.

Care journeys tended to include more placement moves and increased instability before entering residential care, which then continued once in residential care.

Outcomes for those in residential care tends to be poorer than the average outcome for a children in care.

Full Report


Summary Report




Technical Appendix


Evaluation Protocol


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A descriptive analysis of the experiences of children who have had a placement in a residential children’s home subject to children’s homes regulations (subsequently ‘residential care’) using national administrative data. 

We were commissioned to carry out this research by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care to inform the Review’s understanding of the area and to support the formulation of recommendations.


The project aims were to:

  • Provide an overview of the use of residential care and describe the children who experience it
  • Outline the pathways of children into residential care and compare the journeys of children with different demographics
  • Determine the factors that predict entry into residential care for children in care.


Our analysis used individual-level, national data from the Children Looked After Dataset (SSDA903, CLA dataset), linked with extracts of the National Pupil Database (NPD) between 1998-99 and 2019-20.

Using descriptive statistics, we summarised the experiences of a snapshot of all children who were living in residential care in 2019/20 and a cohort of children who turned 18 in 2019/20 who had at least one residential care placement during childhood. We also looked at which characteristics are associated with the likelihood of a child experiencing a residential care placement using regression analyses.

Key Findings

We found that the demographics, care journeys and outcomes of children who have lived in residential care differ, on average, compared to those of all children in care. The analysis also highlights that children living in residential care are a varied group, and enter care at different stages of their lives or for different reasons.


The characteristics of children living in residential care compared to all children in care suggest that:

  • Boys tend to be overrepresented in residential care.
  • White children tend to be overrepresented in residential care, whereas Asian and Black children tend to be underrepresented.
  • Over 90% of children living in residential care have been recorded as receiving provision for a Special Educational Need at some point.


Care Journeys 

Despite on average entering care later than the population of all children in care, children who have lived in residential care spend longer and experience more placement moves during their care journey.

Instability prior to entering residential care is common, such as multiple placement breakdowns and fixed exclusions from school. This instability continues upon entry to residential care, with most children going on to experience multiple additional placements.

Our findings speak to the notion of residential care as a ‘last resort’ used after foster care and kinship care placements break down. Furthermore, it appears that once children are placed in residential care, they move between different residential placements or unsupervised accommodation, such as unregulated children’s homes or independent living.

Children who entered care aged 10 and under and went on to experience residential care aged 11 or older, as well as children who entered care between the ages of 11-15, experience more unstable care journeys and worse outcomes compared to the rest of the residential care sample.


Outcomes for children who have lived in residential care tend to be relatively poor compared to average outcomes for children in care. Our research is not causal, which means that it does not tell us why outcomes tend to be poorer and it does not suggest that this is a consequence of residential care.

Implications for Policy

Our findings underline the high level of need, unstable care journeys and poor outcomes of children who have experience of residential care.

  • Policy makers and commissioners need to consider carefully what the purpose of residential care is. A shared understanding of this would help ensure placements can meet the needs of children and young people and having a clearer sense of the purpose of this placement would help ensure that residential placements can provide the stability and support young people need
  • Decision-makers in local authorities should consider current placement matching processes as well as support given to children after a placement move to help ensure greater placement stability for these young people
  • Policy makers and researchers should look at what educational support is currently in place for children who are living in residential care (including the role of the Virtual Schools Head) to improve the current evidence base and inform what further interventions are needed to boost outcomes for these children

Implications for future research

This analysis cannot determine whether outcomes are a result of the residential care placement or driven by other factors such as high levels of SEN and unstable care journeys (both before and after entering residential care).

  • Future research is needed to understand whether residential care staff have the skills, qualifications, experience and support to work effectively with children in care who typically are vulnerable and have significant needs
  • Future research is needed to identify what works to support residential care leavers at the stage of transition, such as expanding the Staying Close programme
  • Future research is needed to understand why there are variations for gender and ethnicity representation within residential care, how placements are chosen for these children and what support or initiatives would help ensure children are placed within appropriate settings.



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