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Evaluating innovation in children’s social care

Evaluating innovation and building that into decision-making is fundamental to good spending of public money. The Department for Education’s (the Department’s) approach provides an example of using evaluation which will be of value to other departments, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

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Evaluating innovation in children’s social care

The quality of children’s social care matters. Where it is not adequate, children in need of help or protection may be exposed to neglect, abuse or harm. Since 2014 the Department has committed some £333 million to fund a range of innovation projects intended to help local authorities improve outcomes for children and develop new ways of working.

From 2014 to 2020, the Department funded the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme (the Innovation Programme) and has continued to finance successor programmes after 2020.

The Innovation Programme funded 94 projects, including an integrated mental health, education and families service to support children in or on the edge of care; targeted support for young people to secure more stable placements and a positive transition to adulthood; and relationship-based support for women who have experienced removal of their children into care.

From the outset, the Department made evaluation and dissemination of learning a central part of the Innovation Programme. It made evaluation a condition of receiving funding and appointed research teams to carry out evaluations of projects. The Department strengthened its approach as time went on, including developing a new strategy to assess the robustness of evaluation plans.

Most evaluations of individual local projects noted positive results and some reported cost savings. For example, 42 of the 56 projects completed between 2014 and 2016 reported improvements in the quality of services, and 21 reported cost savings.

The Department carried out its own reviews of project evaluations. It has also commissioned and published independent assessments which have highlighted a number of challenges and limitations of the evaluations carried out on individual projects. For example, independent reviewers noted that evaluations were affected by short timescales over which impacts were measured, small sample sizes, and a lack of genuine comparison groups or high-quality data. The Department subsequently used learning from the Innovation Programme to design more sophisticated evaluations of projects in successor schemes.

The Department was transparent and followed best practice by publishing the findings of its evaluations. It published evaluation reports for projects representing 90% of the Programme’s value. This contrasts favourably with the findings of a 2021 NAO report which found that only 36% by spend of the projects in the Government Major Projects Portfolio had evaluation plans in place.1

Since the Innovation Programme came to an end in 2020, the Department has continued to fund children’s social care innovation projects and has commissioned evaluations that measure impact over a longer period. For example, it wanted the evaluation for Strengthening Families – a programme testing the impact of supporting three Innovation Programme projects across 17 additional local authorities – to be as robust as possible so it could determine with greater certainty whether the projects work and in what conditions.

To help other departments learn from its approach, the Department for Education should aim to clearly demonstrate how its funding of innovation in local authorities will lead to better use of public money, wider dissemination of good practice across the sector, and improved outcomes for children in and around the care system.

“Putting evaluation at the heart of the Innovation Programme allowed the Department for Education to identify and promote the projects that have the greatest potential to make a difference for children and their families. The Department’s approach provides an example for other public bodies to follow, and we would encourage it to share its learning to support evidence-based decision-making and efficient spending of public money.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Notes for Editors

  1. National Audit Office: Evaluating government spending (December 2021).
  2. 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.

About the NAO

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and reports on the value for money of how public money has been spent. #

In 2020, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £926 million.


NAO Press Office
+44 (0)20 7798 7400 or email


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