Living circumstances

The UK’s young people between the ages of 10 and 25 experience a range of different living circumstances and economic challenges, which are important for their health.

One in five secondary school aged children are eligible for free school meals


In some cases responsibility for young people’s welfare is taken from families, and given instead to the local authority. The local authority may then arrange for them to live elsewhere. Reasons for being ‘looked after’ in this way most commonly include neglect or other kinds of abuse, family dysfunction, acute family stress, parental illness or disability, and absent parenting. Looked after children are a subset of a broader group of ‘children in need’.

Chart 9.3 shows the numbers of looked after children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2020, but it should be noted that the age ranges and date ranges differ by country, so these figures cannot be compared with each other. For some countries the figures are based on a snapshot over a census week; for Scotland they represent numbers over a full year and children could be counted twice if they had two or more episodes of care.

Looked after children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on 31 March 2020, and Scottish episodes of care between 1 Aug 2019 - 31 July 2020

A significant proportion of children who are looked after by the Local Authority are teenagers and the proportion of older children in care has risen over the past four years. In England in 2020, 31,370 young people aged 10-15 and 19.020 young people aged 16 and over were in the looked after category at the time of the census. 

Chart 9.4 shows that there have been recent increases both in the numbers of 10-15 year olds and those aged 16+ in care in recent years in England, and Chart 9.5 shows the same trend in Wales.

The number of looked after children over 10 years old in England has been slowly increasing
The number of looked after children over 10 years old in Wales been slowly increasing

Asylum seekers are another group potentially made vulnerable by their living circumstances. The majority of children seeking asylum are male teenagers, as shown in Chart 9.6.

In 2019 3,775 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the UK, most of whom were male teenagers

A small group of children under 18 are held in secure accommodation, either on welfare grounds or as a result of being detained by the youth justice system. Secure custody is within secure children’s homes, secure training centres and young offender institutions.

Chart 9.7 illustrates that the numbers in youth custody (11-18 years) in England and Wales rose in the early 2000s, reaching a peak of over 3000, but they have recently been at lower levels, with 479 young people under 18 in custody in July 2021. Again this is a snapshot of the situation during one month. As the average custodial sentence served by young people is much less than one year, many more young people will pass through custody over the course of a year. However, the general trend for lower custody numbers for this age group is to be welcomed. The majority of these young people are male (96% in 2021; Ministry of Justice and Youth Justice Board, 2021).

The number of under 18 year olds in secure custody has decreased over the last 20 years

Larger numbers of 18-24 year olds are also in the prison estate. In the middle of 2020, for example, there were 12,240 young people in this age range in custody, forming 15% of the adult prison population (Prison Reform Trust, 2021). This also represents a fall – there are 41% fewer young adults in prison in England and Wales than 15 years ago (Prison Reform Trust, 2021). Many young people in custody are very vulnerable. There were 12,557 incidents of self harm by people ages 15-24 in custody in 2020, and seven people aged 17-24 died from self inflicted injury in custody in the same year (Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service, 2021).

All data correct as of 1st November 2021