Government not clued up on children’s social care pressures

A new report has concluded that the Department for Education does not fully understand what is driving demand for children’s social care.

The National Audit Office (NAO), which is critical of both the Department for Education and local authorities themselves, also claims that the government does not know why there is such wide variation between local authorities in their children’s social care activity and costs, as it has not yet done the work to tie together available sources of information.

The report highlights data which shows that 655,630 children were referred to local authorities because of concerns about their welfare last year, a rise of seven per cent since 2010. In that same period, local authorities carried out 77 per cent more child protection assessments, with the number of expensive cases where children are taken into care rising by 15 per cent.

Local authorities expect to spend £4.2 billion on children in care this year, which is £350 million more than they budgeted for in 2017-18. However, the Department for Education does not fully understand what is causing increases in demand across all local authorities and, until recently, it did not consider this a fundamental part of its responsibilities.

The NAO’s analysis suggests that local authority characteristics may account for 44 per cent of the variation between different local authorities in how they respond to demand for children’s services. Different levels of deprivation could explain 15 per cent of the variation between local authorities and a further 10 per cent of this variation may be accounted for by changes which affect all local authorities equally at the same time, such as the introduction of a new policy.

It is also important to note that the report found no link between local authorities’ spending per child in need and the quality of services, as measured by Ofsted.

The report recommends that the Department for Education promptly improve its understanding of children’s social care and builds on the NAO’s own research and modelling to help it explain demand and local variations and improve the effectiveness of its decisions.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “Over two years ago we reported that the Department for Education’s progress in improving children’s services was not up to scratch. Since then the department has adopted the target of giving all vulnerable children access to high quality support, no matter where they live, by 2022. The department has started to build its understanding of variations in services, but it should know more than it does. Even with this understanding, the Department faces a tall order to achieve its goal within three years.”

Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Children’s social care is facing a country-wide cash crisis and this report rightly recognises the huge demand that councils are experiencing while attempting to manage significant funding reductions. There is no right amount for councils to spend on children’s services and, as our own research has found, the majority of spend variation is due to wider economic or geographic circumstances largely outside their control.

“Nine in 10 councils had to spend more than they had budgeted for children’s social care last year. It is clear that the most urgent and pressing issue is not variability but the very real funding crisis facing vital children’s services across the country, which face a funding gap of £3.1 billion by 2025. This is forcing many to cut the early intervention services which can help children avoid needing more serious and costly care later on.

“It is vital that the government heeds the consistent and increasingly urgent warnings that children’s services are now at a tipping point, and uses the upcoming Spending Review to deliver a long-term strategy that enables councils to meet the growing need for support from some of the most vulnerable children in society.”

Carl Les, County Councils Network children’s services and education spokesman, and leader of North Yorkshire County Council, said: “Today’s figures from the National Audit Office are another illustration of the unsustainable nature of children’s services – with demand far outstripping current funding levels. As the findings today show, the number of children in care, and the number of child protection plans are far outstripping population growth and show no signs of abating.
“As a result, local authorities overspent by over £800 million on children’s services last year, with county authorities the most vulnerable to overspends – spending £264 million more than they budgeted. This trend looks set to continue with demand continuing to rise. Government must provide extra funding to protect vulnerable children in the Spending Review, otherwise counties will have to continue cutting other services or using their reserves. The rise in demand for children’s services is incredibly complex and cannot simply be put down to population increases. We want to work with government to fully understand what is driving demand, as well as offering our experience of delivering services on the ground in a challenging financial climate – with many high-profile examples of county authorities successfully re-shaping services so they offer more for less.”

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