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The Children’s Commissioner for England’s Office has today (Tuesday) published research carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) into the levels of government spending on children between 2000 and 2020.

The research, commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner ahead of next year’s Spending Review, looks at budget changes affecting children over the last two decades. For the first time, it looks across government at what is spent, on which children, rather than focusing on individual departmental budgets. The work is designed to contribute to the debate about what we spend on whom and when, in an era of austerity, and is a part of the Commissioner’s ongoing work around childhood vulnerability.

The report, ‘Public Spending on Children in England: 2000 to 2020’, shows that levels of government spending on children have been broadly maintained over the last twenty years. Last year, total spending on children from the main government departments which fund services for children – but excluding healthcare where data is limited – was over £120bn or £10,000 per child under 18. Spending per child is 42% higher in real terms than it was in 2000–01, although 10% below its high point of £11,300 in 2010–11.

However, the analysis also reveals a number of deeply concerning trends, with mainstream and acute services, such as 4-16 education and support for children in care, protected at the expense of targeted preventative services. Almost half of spending on children’s services now goes on 73,000 children in the care system, while the other half has to cover the remaining 11.7 million children in England. Altogether, 72% of children’s services budgets go towards helping families in severe need.

The report shows there has been a significant reorientation of spending in recent years towards statutory help for children in crisis, while overall children’s services spending has been largely frozen since 2009–10. Spending on preventative support, such as Sure Start and young people’s services, has consequently been cut by around 60% in real-terms between 2009–10 and 2016–17.

Other findings in the report include:

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, responding to the IFS findings, said:

“This analysis shows that while overall public spending on children has been broadly maintained over the last twenty years, millions of vulnerable children who are not entitled to statutory support will be missing out because of the huge cost of helping a small number of children who are in crisis.

“While every child should receive the support they need, the economic and social costs of this current strategy are unsustainable. The cost to the state is ultimately greater than it should be and the cost to those vulnerable children missing out on support will last a lifetime. Every day we are seeing the consequences of helping children too late – in pressures on the family courts system, special schools and the care system and in the spiralling numbers of school exclusions and the consequent increase in younger and younger children linked to violent street gangs.

“I hope this analysis will help to move the debate on from one simply about the amount we spend on children, to a debate about how we spend it. Next year’s Spending Review offers an opportunity to step in and support these children falling through the gaps, avoiding government silos and designing cross-departmental services built around a clear identification of the unmet needs of kids. Spending allocations should be seen through the prism of the child, not the prism of which bit of Whitehall thinks it can spend it best.

“If we can get this right, we will be acting in the best interests not only of vulnerable children, but of all children and the country.”

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