There were few expectations ahead of last month’s comprehensive spending review in the children’s sector, given that the education settlement for 2007-8 to 2010-11 had been announced six months earlier in the 2007 Budget.
But there were still a few funding announcements of note, and details were published of a new performance management framework intended to focus minds on a smaller number of national, outcome-focused indicators linked to a new set of public service agreements.
Below, we explore some of the more significant announcements and targets.
Just three weeks after child poverty campaigners accused the government of reneging on its promise to end child poverty and of writing off almost a million children it had promised to help, Peter Hain, work and pensions secretary, has admitted that more needs to be done to tackle the problem – and launched a new cross-government child poverty unit to do it.
However, no amount of joined-up thinking from any new unit will make a significant difference when it comes to meeting the government’s 2010 target of reducing the number of children living in relative poverty to 1.7 million.
The child poverty lobby is united in its belief that, while wider measures will be needed to meet the 2020 goal of eradicating child poverty, what is required to lift an additional 800,000 children out of relative poverty by 2010 is, simply, hard cash given directly to the poorest families.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that this would cost an extra £3.8bn a year. However, last month’s comprehensive spending review promised investment on a much smaller scale: an increase in child tax credits of £50 a year by 2010 (on top of the £150 extra a year promised in the 2007 Budget) and the national roll-out of the in-work credit, a £40 weekly payment for lone parents during their first 12 months back in work after more than a year on benefits.
“The investment they have announced will only put us back in the position we were in in 2005,” says Kate Green, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, a member of the End Child Poverty Campaign.
“The actions do not match the words. We need to see levels of investment that will lift a million children out of poverty.
“An extra £3.8bn sounds a lot, but it actually represents 1% of annual public expenditure. They have found the money to cut inheritance tax. But if they are serious about injustice, they should be spending it on tackling child poverty instead.”
As part of the CSR, the Department for Work and Pensions also promised to raise to £40 a week by 2010 the amount of child maintenance a lone parent can keep before their benefits are affected. Although this move has been widely welcomed, questions have been raised about where the money to fund it will come from.
“It looks like it might be coming from efficiency savings at the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission [which is due to replace the Child Support Agency],” warns Liberal Democrat shadow work and pensions secretary Danny Alexander. “But to expect CMEC to work more efficiently than the CSA with fewer staff and resources seems to be a case of counting your chickens before the eggs are even laid – particularly given the current state of the CSA.”
In terms of measuring progress on child poverty, the government has made good its 2004 pledge to start looking at material deprivation alongside the number of children living in absolute and relative poverty. The 2007 public service agreement on halving the number of children living in poverty by 2010-11 therefore includes an indicator on each of these three measures of poverty, with the one on material deprivation being particularly welcomed as a way of better capturing the extra costs faced by families with disabled children.
CHILDREN’S HEALTH AND WELL-BEING
Nationally, 10% of children aged between five and 15 have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Perhaps it is this disturbingly high statistic that prompted the government to set a new public service agreement to improve children and young people’s health and well-being.
Key to this particular PSA is indicator 4, which includes improving child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs). Improvements in Camhs will be judged by measuring the percentage of primary care trusts and local authorities providing a comprehensive service for their area through four proxy measures: development of Camhs for children with learning disabilities accommodation and support for 16- to 17-year-olds availability of 24-hour cover to meet urgent mental health needs and joint commissioning of early intervention support.
These four measures expired earlier this year and there were concerns that this would leave a vacuum, resulting in improvements to date falling away. So, the decision to keep them in place until 2009, and build on them beyond then to measure tangible outcomes for children, ensures much-needed continuity to Camhs.
Steve Shrubb, director of the NHS Confederation‘s mental health network, says: “There needs to be further progress, but it signals that policymakers aren’t taking their eye off the ball.
“These measures demonstrate the growing acknowledgement of the need to intervene early if we are to stop children becoming adults with mental health problems.”
The PSA’s focus on outputs and outcomes is a welcome direction of travel for Gill Rigg, director of children’s integrated services at Lancashire Council, as is the whole-system approach endorsed by the measurement of PCTs and local authorities working together.
“Things get attention when you have to report on them,” Rigg says. “It will also highlight good practice that we can then share. We can provide better services jointly than in isolation, which is why this is important.”
The only unease over this indicator is the lack of any additional funding to accompany it. By contrast, there is money on the table to improve services for disabled children, alongside the first indicator specifically dedicated to this group, also included in PSA 12.
Improvements in this field will be measured according to parents’ experiences of services, combined with progress on implementing the core offer made in the Treasury-led policy review Aiming High for Disabled Children published in May.
Alongside a £340m funding package, including £280m for more short breaks for disabled children, the reviewed announced action on five key areas including ensuring eligibility criteria and processes for accessing services are transparent.
Steve Broach, campaign manager for the Every Disabled Child Matters Campaign, says this means that local authorities will have to publish their eligibility criteria so parents will know why they are turned down for support. “We have never had a chance as good as this to really improve the quality and quantity of services,” says Broach. “This goes alongside ringfenced new resources for short breaks and a smaller funding pot for other areas such as child care and transition services.”
SOCIALLY EXCLUDED YOUNG PEOPLE
Public service agreement 14 aims to “increase the number of children and young people on the path to success” and includes national targets to reduce the number of 16- and 17-year-olds not in education, employment or training, and the numbers of pregnancies among those under 18. The target also requires local authorities to tackle alcohol, drugs and substance misuse by teenagers and to get more young people “participating in positive activities”.
Viv McKee, director of policy and development at the National Youth Agency, welcomes the PSA, and is particularly pleased that its stated aim links in with the youth strategy launched in the summer, Aiming High for Disabled Children.
However, she is concerned that the PSA will be measured by a series of indicators that are “negative in their phrasing”, and favours translating the indicators into more positive outcomes to show support to young people.
The definition of what counts as more participation in “positive activities” also needs explaining, McKee adds, as local authorities may not be clear on what they should be doing.
She warns that local authorities’ tight budgets may hinder progress, with some councils having small real resources to allocate to achieving this PSA. She predicts that success will depend on the level of partnership support they have managed to create. “It’s about authorities’ ability to lever in resource from partnership working.”
John Coughlin, co-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, supports the baskets of indicators chosen to measure councils’ progress but says the only caveat is the PSA’s attempts to measure the broader issue of well-being and happiness in such a narrow way.
For care leavers struggling to get on in life, PSA 16 will also help focus minds and attention. Care leavers are one of four groups of socially excluded adults that this new PSA highlights for help in finding accommodation and employment, education or training.
This wide-ranging target will measure local authorities’ success by the number of care leavers at 19 in suitable accommodation and the number in education, employment and training.
While performance indicators on improving the outcomes of care leavers have long been something local authorities have been measured against, Care Leavers Association secretary Jim Goddard says the inclusion of this group of people in PSA 16 is an admission by government that the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 is failing.
“It is noticeable that the other groups in PSA 16 have identifiable reasons, connected to their adult lives, as to why they may experience social exclusion,” Goddard says.
“For care leavers, the common factor is that they have been in the care of the state. The state has had a long time to overcome their disadvantages, but for large numbers it clearly has not done so.”
Goddard believes the reference to ‘suitable’ accommodation for care leavers needs to be more specific. “The indicator talks about it being ‘safe, secure and affordable’. It would be good to know who is measuring this. Care leavers should be involved in assessing the quality of local provision and deciding if it is ‘suitable’ by those yardsticks.”
➔ More information on PSAs 14 and 16
➔ Aiming High for Young People: A Ten Year Strategy for Positive Activities
TOP TIPS FOR A GOOD HOME
● Across central and local government, there is a target of 3% efficiency savings over the CSR period
This article appeared in the 8 November issue under the headline “Measures of future success”