Today’s Children in Need (CiN) review is important for two reasons. Firstly, it shines a light on the hundreds of thousands of children in England who are growing up in need, supporting the argument I have been making since I became Children’s Commissioner that identifying vulnerability in children is essential if we are to improve outcomes for those who are being held back, or worse, completely failed.
Secondly, it brings into sharp focus the absolute paralysis currently affecting much of Whitehall and Westminster.
The report sets out a compelling narrative. Too many children are growing up in disadvantage, struggling at home and at school. It confirms that the educational prospects for most Children in Need – those assessed as needing the support of social workers, more than one in ten kids – are, frankly, dire. Astonishingly, fewer than one in five of the 1.6m children assessed at some point as CiN pass maths and English GCSEs. This is a shocking outcome and begs the question: what chance do the rest have to do well in adulthood, to find good jobs or go to university and make their way in the world?
It is a question which largely goes unanswered.
As the report says, there are many different characteristics that can affect a child’s education before they even enter the school gates. Disadvantage can go beyond income. Family circumstances – poor housing, domestic violence in the home, addiction or parental mental health issues – can affect children’s development. And when these factors occur in combination, the impact will limit every aspect of a child’s life. The correlation between the rise in the number of children taken into care and parental mental health problems and alcohol abuse, is stark.
It’s a huge and welcome step that the Department for Education is publishing this analysis. But while I am pleased that the CiN review recognises the scale, changing nature and impact of disadvantage on many children’s lives, the big question we should all be asking is: what are you going to do about it?
The Education department cannot resolve these problems alone – it requires cross-Whitehall focus, and funding; it needs early help, social care and CAMHS services to be provided to these kids. All that requires money. The Prime Minister today called for all teachers to be trained to spot emerging mental health conditions in kids – I don’t think they have that much trouble spotting them; they have trouble finding anyone to treat them. I have called for a long time for a CAMHS professional to be available in every school. Now, on the day we hear that teenagers in Liverpool are being paid £1,000 to stab other kids and the Government publicly recognises that one in ten kids with a social worker lurches in and out of the service for 4-5 years, the PM calls for a twiddle to teacher training?
It is three years since Brexit became the national political priority – three years in which half of the youngest children in need have grown up failing to meet their early development goals, a lifetime disadvantage. While the Westminster manoeuvring continues, on and on interminably, Government itself has ground almost to a halt and the prospects for many of these kids remains wretched. Soon we will have the third Prime Minister of my tenure as Children’s Commissioner. More departmental upheaval could follow, and the chance to get a grip of tackling childhood vulnerability delayed again.
Incredibly, we still don’t know for sure when the next Spending Review will occur. It should already have happened. We hear it might be in the autumn; it might cover one year not three; it depends on Brexit. Obviously it also depends on having a Prime Minister with sufficient grip and focus to set policy and spending priorities and see them through.
This delay is having real consequences for children and families. For example, the Troubled Families programme – which supported the families of nearly 600,000 children last year – is ending in March 2020. Ministers have been clear they hope to replace it, but they need a spending review to do so. As it stands, support for hundreds of thousands of families on the edge of crisis is in danger of withering away. Local authorities have to plan ahead to staff such a large scale programme and without continuing funding assured, they will start to let people go.
And the Spending Review must do more than simply roll-over current projects. It needs to contain real investment in children, their families and their communities. The Children in Need review says we ought to help these children – but action needs to match principles. Saying, as the review does, that schools have a role to play is just hopeless without more funding and firm commitments.
In fact, I cannot find any commitments in today’s review to dramatically improve the services the Government knows can change life chances. Worryingly, there is only one mention of the Troubled Families programme. Similarly, there is a strong focus on poor early years outcomes, but no mention for example of how more health visitors could help. And the only action points relating to children’s services are promises about improving Ofsted grading and social work practice. Telling schools they ought to ‘do more’ is unrealistic and unfair when the services on which they and families rely are being cut to shreds.
I welcome strongly the pledge in the review to introduce an annual updating of CiN figures. The face and nature of disadvantage for children does not stand still – it is a moving and fluctuating lived experience – and we need up to date data to analyse it. I welcome too the focus on the action areas: increasing the visibility of children in need, making schools a more inclusive and protecting environment, with fairer, quicker access procedures, and the promotion of aspiration and support in and around schools.
But the elephant in the room remains. How will any of this be funded? Over the last year, my office has provided the Department for Education, No 10 and the Treasury with all the evidence they need to persuade them that investing in early help is the right thing to do – and also the most financially prudent in the long term.
Ultimately, the next Government must look seriously at the life chances of vulnerable children in England. The new Prime Minister will have to decide whether this is a priority for him, and today’s Children in Need review is yet another reminder of the scale of the challenge. Will the new occupant of Downing Street be up to it, or will they allow more generations of vulnerable children to grow up without the advantages and opportunities they expect by right for their own kids? Of course, the great tragedy for thousands of children is that these decisions could and should have been made ages ago.