Today’s report from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee doesn’t pull its punches: children’s services need an extra £3.1bn in funding to survive, and that’s just the start. Coming on the back of highly critical reports from the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office, the report paints a picture of malign neglect of children’s services on the part of Central Government. The result is a perfect storm of increased expectations, rising demand and cost pressures which local authorities cannot control.
We are pleased to see much of our evidence to the committee reflected in the final report. We’re particularly pleased to see the Committee recognise that additional funding alone is not sufficient, and that “increased funding must go hand-in-hand with systemic change if local authority children’s services are to be sustainable in the long-term”. The report is highly critical of the Department for Education’s failure to tackle the variation in children’s services and its inaction on universal cost pressures such as recruitment and residential care. The Committee has echoed the Commissioner’s concerns that the Troubled Families programme (which provided support to the families of 404,000 children last year) is withering away because Government has failed to come to a decision on how to renew or replace it.
All of this gives the Government quite a to-do list, and it’s not one the Department for Education can duck. Much more work is required to understand the drivers of demand in children’s services and why spending varies at the same time as urgent action needed to address social worker recruitment and to increase the supply of residential care. Looking forward, the Department for Education and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have been told to ensure that further ‘obligations’ on children’s services are fully funded (obligations that are actually vital services for children, including care leavers support and care for children with SEND).
Yet the Housing, Communities and Local Government’s report only tells half the story. Their report, quite understandably given their remit, was looking at the pressures on local authorities. The more fundamental issue – what is required to meet the needs of children – is a huge challenge for children’s services (and Government). This is partly because we know very little about the children for whom services are provided. Until the Children’s Commissioner’s vulnerability framework was first published in 2017, no one had ever attempted to understand how many children or families were out there who needed help. We only have limited information on how many get help (we have no information, for example, on how many families access ‘early help’) and we have no information at all on the outcomes these children achieve. All of this means that we are often unable to connect the spending pressures facing councils with the impact on children.
So what do we know about vulnerable children and their outcomes? Firstly, the Children’s Commissioner’s vulnerability framework identifies 2.1m children living in families with significant additional need. Over a three year period, about half of these children will reach the threshold for statutory children’s services, and we estimate that each year about 700,000 get some form of help. And yet their educational prospects, the only outcome we can track, are extremely poor. Of the children reaching the threshold for statutory intervention, only a quarter reach the expected standard of development at primary school. Average attainment at the end of secondary school is half that of the rest of the population.
This is the real challenge for children’s services: 10% of children are reaching the threshold for statutory children’s services, and for these children their prospects are still being determined by their family circumstances, because of our failure to make meaningful and lasting interventions. The Children’s Act, thirty years old this year, set out an obligation on local authorities to help children reach “a reasonable standard of health or development”, including health and well-being. Yet on this evidence, it’s not working. This year’s expected Spending Review needs to put children’s services on a sustainable footing. But the biggest challenge is how we change the life course for these children. And for the moment, this remains a black hole in Government policy.