Despite Every Child Matters, outcomes for disabled children and their families are still very poor. The Every Disabled Child Matters campaign believes that services for disabled children need more funding, coupled with prioritisation within the performance management frameworks for local government and health agencies. The 2007 comprehensive spending review is the ideal time to address the inequalities in outcomes for disabled children and their families.
Ministerial support for improving services for disabled children and their families means that rather than leading to cuts, the comprehensive spending review offers a golden chance to inject new money, writes Steve Broach
There is nothing new in the idea that disabled children and their families get a rough deal from public services compared with other groups. What is new is that there is now a chance for the government to do something about it. Crucially, ministers from the Treasury and Department for Education and Skills have made disabled children a priority theme in their children and young people’s review, which will inform the 2007 comprehensive spending review.
The chancellor’s review offers the potential to deliver new money for disabled children’s services and the mechanisms to improve support for families with disabled children. The Every Disabled Child Matters campaign – set up by Contact a Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap and the Special Education Consortium – is determined to make sure this happens.
The Every Child Matters agenda is a statement of intent that children matter in public services, and its five outcomes now shape the way public services relate to children. Yet it is clear that outcomes for disabled children are falling way below the government’s vision.
The Every Child Matters website states: “Disabled children and young people currently face multiple barriers which make it more difficult for them to achieve their potential, to achieve the outcomes their peers expect and to succeed in education.”(1)
Figures from the Commission for Social Care Inspection show that only 6 per cent of disabled children are supported by social services.
As a consequence, a survey by Mencap found that eight in 10 families with severely disabled children described themselves as at, or close to, breaking point.(2) Similar problems of a lack of provision and funding affect other areas – from equipment services, which struggle to provide basic essentials to families, to education, where disabled children are up to 13 times more likely to be excluded from school than their non-disabled peers.
One thing is certain: poor outcomes for many families with disabled children are not the result of a lack of policy in this area.
Since a report from the Audit Commission described the level of support for these families as “unacceptably low”,(3) the government has produced a raft of policy initiatives to deliver multi-agency support for all families with disabled children. Key policy initiatives include the disabled module of the Children’s National Service Framework and the special educational needs strategy Removing Barriers to Achievement.
These initiatives were highlighted by the eight government ministers who gave evidence to the parliamentary hearings on services for disabled children. Yet despite all the new policy, half of parents giving evidence to the MPs said the education and health services their disabled children received were poor while eight in 10 labelled social care services poor.(4)
Parents and professionals alike were clear that the prime cause of this service shortfall is a lack of funding. A report by the prime minister’s strategy unit stated that, from 1975 to 2002, the number of disabled children grew by 62 per cent, from 476,000 to 772,000. There has been no equivalent increase in funding in that period.
Moreover, the nature of that population has been changing, with more children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders and more children with complex health needs living longer. Both these groups need significant additional support.
Without new money local agencies will continue to be faced with a situation where even essential support services have to be rationed, and only those families willing and able to fight obtain anything like the services that they need. Yet professionals also identified that, alongside new money, a culture shift is needed in the position of disabled children in service priorities.
Disabled children are entirely absent from current public service agreement targets, while few local area agreements have made disabled children a priority.
An analysis of children and young people’s plans found a lack of focus on how services for disabled children and their families would be improved through the plans.(5) Where standards do exist for disabled children, such as in the Children’s National Service Framework, they are “developmental” and are not fully informing inspection regimes.
This is the context in which the children and young people’s review published its interim evidence paper last month.(6) The paper confirmed that disabled children were vulnerable to poor outcomes. It called for a continuum of support for families with disabled children and for new incentives to deliver effective services that meet need and promote early intervention. It also sets out the need for universal services, particularly extended schools, to be accessible to all disabled children.
The review rightly recognises that, if services were to improve, disabled children and their families need to be fully involved when services were planned, commissioned and delivered.
In the review, key workers to co-ordinate services and short breaks to give children and families a break from each other were identified as urgent priorities. Key workers were a core element of the government’s flagship Early Support programme, which the parliamentary hearings recognised as a success story in providing support to families with disabled children.
A similar initiative to Early Support is needed to improve the support offered to young disabled people in transition to adulthood.
Short breaks are the subject of the Disabled Children (Family Support) Bill, adopted by Gary Streeter MP and supported by the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, which has its second reading in the House of Commons this month.
The Treasury and DfES review is running alongside the reforms to the local government performance management regime set out in the Local Government Bill and white paper.(7) New targets need to relate to meaningful outcomes for disabled children – such as the extent to which they are included in the community and how their learning progresses during their education.
They should be linked to a new “core offer” for disabled children, a set of minimum service standards for every family with a disabled child. Finally, the revised inspection framework must prioritise disabled children; we believe there is a strong case for a rolling programme of inspection of disabled children services, as the white paper envisages for looked-after children.
In his speech to this year’s Labour conference, the chancellor Gordon Brown described services for disabled children as “one of the greatest social policy failures”. The commitment of economic secretary Ed Balls to ending this failure has driven disabled children up the agenda within the children’s services review. At a recent meeting of eight all-party parliamentary groups, Lord Adonis confirmed the commitment of DfES to delivering the Every Child Matters agenda for disabled children and their families.
To make this happen, new money needs to be focused on the services that are important to families – and this money needs to be delivered within a performance framework for local public services that finally take seriously the needs of families with disabled children.
Training and Learning
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(1) Every Child Matters
(2) Breaking Point – Families Still Need a Break, Mencap, 2006.
(3) Services for Disabled Children, Audit Commission, 2003
(4) Parliamentary hearings on services for disabled children – full report, October 2006,
(5) Every Disabled Child Matters, Off the Radar: How Local Authority Plans Fail Disabled Children, 2006,
(6) HM Treasury/DfES, Policy Review of Children and Young People, 2007
(7) Strong and Prosperous Communities, Department of Communities and Local Government, 2006
This article appeared in the 8 February issue of the magazine, under the headline “Pie in the Sky? Not at all”