A major research study has found no explanation for most of the cost variation in children’s social services across England.
The Department for Education and Skills-funded research found that factors such as a child’s level of need explained only one-third of the variation in resources allocated to different children.
And it suggested that factors outside the control of local authorities, such as higher labour prices, had “only a small additional impact” on the large cost differences between authorities for children in need.
The study said the variation implied councils were spending their money in different ways, some of which must be “better” than others.
The report also described the quality of information in case files as “poor” with too many lacking basic information on care history or school attendance.
It suggested councils had not been able to create preventive and collaborative services, describing “a fierce system of rationing, responses to a narrow definition of need and patchy co-operation with other agencies”.
The study cited tight resources as the most obvious explanation, with savings from prevention likely to take a decade to filter through.
Joint author, University of Kent academic Jennifer Beecham, said some of the cost variation could not be explained because economic evaluation of social care was in its infancy. But she said some may be caused by small differences in local policies, practices and culture.
Association of Directors of Social Services children and families committee joint chair Paul Fallon said the cost variation was more to do with what elements local authorities included in their cost calculations rather than how much they spent.
● Costs and Outcomes from Children’s Social Care: Messages from Research
Other main findings
● Better immediate outcomes in residential care were associated with good leadership, not higher staffing ratios or costs.
● Investment in assessment and care planning should be given high priority as it costs little in comparison with the cost of poor decisions.
● The way social services spend their money should be reviewed so that resources can be redistributed in more rational ways.
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