Tackling the growing needs of children’s services


by Rob Whiteman, Chief Executive, CIPFA

While by no means fixed, the efforts by councils and others to convince government of the need for action to support the delivery of adult social care has resulted in a number of changes designed to help meet the growing demand, including the introduction of the adult social care precept and the promise of a Green Paper.  

Children’s social care has not yet received the same attention, despite clear warning signs (not least, CIPFA’s annual CFO confidence survey) that the strains on local authorities are just as great, if not greater, for children’s social care as they are for adults.

Children’s care is a politically sensitive and emotive area. It is also a highly complex one, covering a range of needs spanning different age groups, levels of vulnerability, special educational support and many other areas deemed appropriate from a safeguarding position. With the responsibility of funding and service delivery falling on multiple parts of the public sector – from council services, to schools and academies, to the NHS and police – the challenge of co-ordinating the right level of support at the right time between so many different organisations and agencies can prove somewhat of a challenge in itself. 

Each of these component parts has seen funding cuts to a lesser or greater degree over the course of ten years of austerity. The risks of cutting too far and under-investing now expose public bodies to long-term consequences, which means investing in children’s services must be part of a long-term strategy from the government. But in the short term, we are now beginning to see evidence that a funding reduction in one area places pressure on another. Cost shunting suddenly becomes a real risk (by accident or design) and it is easy to see how whole system prevention and early help programmes can become less about what is best to support the child and family and more about limiting the impact on a particular budget. 

Local government funding over the past decade has been cut by close to a half. For the most part the response has been outstanding, with councils identifying ways to find efficiencies, innovate, transform services and collaborate with other councils and public bodies.  

Children’s services has not been immune to these austerity challenges. Spending on children’s social care by local authorities was initially cut (-8.2% 2011/12, -8.4% 2012/13), and, although funding levels since have occasionally been more generous (+2.1% in 2015/16), the overarching direction of travel is one of funding continuing to fall short of demand. This at a time of significant rise in child protection cases, which show few signs of abating (6.3% increase in 2011/12 to nearly 30% in 2015/16).  

Overall, this is a stark reminder of a need versus resource mismatch. Indeed, for the last two years, national total spend on children’s services was £0.6bn above budget, and it is recognised that by 2020 there could be a £2bn funding gap.  

Spending patterns from one council to another differ widely. In the joint publication Changing Children’s Lives launched last year CIPFA and Peopletoo, the practitioner led public services transformation consultancy, found that in 2014/15, spend ranged from an estimated £340 per child in need for one authority, to £4,970 per child in another. The effectiveness of the service also varied widely, for example, the rates of re-referrals to children’s social care during that year varied from 6% to 46% and children with repeat child protection plans varied from 3% to 44%.   

To avoid an exercise in pure cost cutting to balance the books, we need better sharing of best practice and the innovations and efficiencies that some organisations are achieving. It was great to see exactly this at a recent CIPFA roundtable event facilitated by Peopletoo in the West Yorkshire and Humber region. Attended by local government finance leaders and those responsible for delivering children’s services, the group not only discussed some of the current challenges facing children's services, but also shared some of the innovative work that is happening across local government and its partners, particularly in places such as Bradford, Calderdale and Doncaster.   

The roundtable evidenced the benefits of not only coming together as a region to share ideas for innovation, but also to identifying opportunities to work more closely together in areas such as out of borough placements, market development and market shaping. The event also provided an opportunity for Peopletoo and CIPFA to share some of their experiences and examples of best practice from across the country. Key topics included high-cost placements, high-needs funding apportionment and whole system prevention and early help. 

Drawing on the roundtable discussions and best practice across the country, one of the positives that is apparent from this challenging financial time is the drive to work in greater partnership with providers, third sector and health, adopting a whole system approach to maximise resources and streamline pathways. From Peopletoo and CIPFA’s experience this not only drives greater efficiency but also improves outcomes for young people, their families and carers.

Of course, this does not take away the need to heighten the profile of the financial challenges facing children's services, but what it does offer is some hope in these challenging times.

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