The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) analysis of Census 2021, published as a new release today (Tuesday 26 September 2023), offers useful new insights into kinship households across England and Wales and helps us to build a better picture of who kinship families are, where they live, and their circumstances.
It confirms that kinship households are more likely than parental households to be deprived and overcrowded, and to contain people who report long-term physical or mental health conditions or illness that limit their day-to-day activities. This reflects the findings from our own surveys of kinship carers, and demonstrates the need to consider additional support for this group of carers and their children.
Improving data on kinship care
However, on its own, this new data isn’t enough to give us the accurate and robust understanding of kinship families we need, and once again shows that there must be a holistic and comprehensive approach to collecting data specifically on kinship families, from the right sources, to inform policy and practice.
The Census is a useful tool for understanding more about households where children are living with family relatives other than their parents, but it can struggle when dealing with very small cohorts of the population and less common households, especially those determined by more complex parts of the Census. It cannot give us a definitive number of the number of children growing up in kinship care or kinship carers. The methodological constraints of the ONS’ analysis, dictated by the structure of the Census questions themselves, means that it could miss many children who are being cared for by relatives and family friends in kinship care. The Census simply isn’t the best place to comprehensively do this, even if it can help to enrich our understanding of many kinship households.
Comparisons to previous research
Putting these new figures alongside those from the existing University of Bristol analysis of the 2011 Census might imply that there has been a significant drop in the number of children in kinship care over this period. However, we shouldn’t be tempted to draw this conclusion – the two datasets use different methodologies and aren’t comparable. The ONS also notes that differences in data quality between the ‘relationship matrix’ part of the 2011 Census and Census 2021 makes direct comparison difficult.
Instead, we expect the numbers of children in kinship care to have grown since 2011, reflecting rising levels of child poverty and other factors which influence child welfare intervention, as well as increasing use of kinship care arrangements such as family and friends foster care and special guardianship for children who cannot live with their parents.
Our approach and what we want to see
At Kinship, we’ll continue to use all of the datasets available from the 2011 Census and Census 2021, local authorities, the Department for Education, the family court and elsewhere, along with our own pioneering research and surveys of kinship carers, to build the most complete picture we can of kinship families across England and Wales. We’ll always aim to point to the sources we use when talking about the number of children in kinship care and explain why we’ve chosen them.
We’ll also continue to campaign to improve data collection on kinship care so that it is as robust and accurate as it is for other cohorts, such as for children in local authority care. The current disparity is unacceptable, and a new approach should underpin the UK Government’s forthcoming National Kinship Care Strategy and the children’s social care data strategy in England, both due by the end of the year. The invisibility of kinship families allows children and their carers to remain invisible to policymakers – this must end if we are serious about truly transforming support for kinship families of all types throughout England and Wales.