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Over the past three years, the Children’s Commissioner has been placing an increased focus on identifying children who are otherwise invisible. In particular, children who are dealing with issues at home that impede their development, but are not reaching the threshold for acute support. We have long argued that with the right support early on, these children can flourish and have better life chances as a result.  The social and economic gains – for children themselves and the country as a whole – are, we argue, significant. To this end, our priority has been to identify who these children are and what support they need.

That’s why we welcomed the commitment to investigate the needs of ‘Children in Need’ in the last Conservative manifesto. In social care, a “Child in Need” is specifically defined by the Children’s Act as a child who “is unlikely to achieve or maintain […] a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision of services by a local authority”. In other words, a child in need is one who has reached the statutory threshold to require support from social services. What this support looks like will vary – for some children it will mean being brought into care or being put on a child protection plan. There are children who are considered to be “in need” because they have a disability, and for these children the support might be respite care, or support in the home. However, these groups are the minority.

The majority of children who are considered “in need” are on the list because of issues relating to their home life, though not sufficiently serious to warrant either a child protection plan or being taken into care. That does not mean that the issues in these children’s lives are not substantial. Around 80% of children classified as “in need” because they are at risk or abuse or neglect are facing family dysfunction or are in a family classified as being in “extreme stress”. Half of children in need will be in homes with domestic violence, a fifth are dealing with parental substance abuse. The prognosis for these children is poor: only a quarter of children in need 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.

Quite rightly, the last Conservative Manifesto promised to look at what support is available for these children. However, in Government this promise was shrunk to a review of the education outcomes of children in need. And this morning, amid the inevitable focus on Brexit, this review published its interim findings. One thing stands out – “that over three years, from 2014-15 to 2016-17, there were 1.1 million Children in Need and at least 1 in 10 pupils in state schools in 2016-17 had been in need at some point in the previous six years”. Put another way, nearly 10% of the 12m children in England have been reached the threshold for social services interventions over three years.  On average, a state school will have two or three pupils in every class. In reality, we estimate the population of children with additional needs to be larger still, at around 2.1m children living in households with complex needs such as domestic violence or poor parental mental health.

This leaves a dilemma: here are a population of children, much larger than anyone previously liked to admit, for whom the prognosis is very poor. They have reached the level where they warrant intervention from social services, but it is not clear what support is available to them. What should our response look like? The answer, I believe, is contained within the Children’s Act written way back in 1989. The Act places a duty on local authorities “(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need” but to do so in a way that “promotes the upbringing of such children by their families.” It is this part of the duty that we too often forget. Yes, there are children who will need to go into care, but even with care numbers rising, children in care represent fewer than 15% of the total population of children receiving statutory help from children’s services.

It is our duty to these children with less complex needs – and their families – that too often we forget. The increasing number of children in care has put huge pressure on the rest of children’s services. Research we commissioned from the IFS this year found that 77% of children’s services went on children in care or in crisis situations. This support is needed, but it must not come at the cost of supporting the wider population in need. When we talk to senior practitioners about what is needed to help these families it is simple measures: family support workers, debt advice, parenting programmes, often domestic violence programmes: working with perpetrators and survivors. We need to be providing this as well as help for children in care. Yet with funding to councils increasingly under pressure, we are faced with a future where it is one or the other. The Government’s own review has shown that these children need help – the Government’s response must now be to ensure it is provided.

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