The Department for Education (DfE) “does not fully understand” the reasons for huge variations in social work interventions and children’s services spending across English local authorities, a report published today has warned.
Nor has the DfE got to grips with why child protection investigations and numbers of children being taken into care have soared nationally at levels far above population growth, the analysis by the National Audit Office (NAO) argued.
The government faces a “tall order” to achieve its goal of ensuring access to high-quality support for all vulnerable children by 2022, the publication concluded.
The new report underscored well-publicised financial pressures that have seen many councils warning of children’s services overspends pushing overall budgets into the red.
Ninety-one percent of local authorities overspent on children’s social care in 2017-18, to the tune of £872 million across England, the NAO said.
Nationally, children’s services spending on preventative measures dropped from 41% to 25% of budgets – which were broadly maintained in the face of cuts – between 2011-12 and 2017-18, the report found. Over the same period child protection assessments rose by 77% and plans by 26% while the numbers of children taken into care – the pressure most frequently cited by councils – went up 15%.
But social work activity and spending varied significantly between local authorities, in ways that could not be easily explained, the report found.
Children in need per 10,000 in 2017-18 ranged from 301 to 1,343 between councils, and on child protection plans from 22 to 156.
Meanwhile the amount local authorities spent per child in need episode ranged from £566 to £5,166 per year across unitary authorities. Other types of councils – metropolitan, counties and London boroughs – exhibited similar spreads.
In keeping with an earlier NAO analysis, the new report identified no correlation between spending on children in need and local authorities’ Ofsted ratings. It also found that a council’s Ofsted grade did not seem to predict its ability to reduce numbers of children in care.
In an interview with Community Care last year, Sir Alan Wood, the chair of the children’s social care What Works Centre, suggested the relationship between Ofsted inspections and councils’ improvement journeys was an area that should be looked into.
The new NAO report noted some limited attempts by the DfE to understand rising demand but said this was “not comprehensive” and did not account for the majority of the pressure on services.
It added that a 2018 study by the chief children’s social worker Isabelle Trowler had not identified an increase in complexity of need in the records of families facing court proceedings.
The NAO’s own analysis of differences in activity between local authorities concluded that almost half (44%) of the variation may be down to local characteristics. These included social care custom and practice, market conditions, the characteristics of children and families, geographical peculiarities and historical demand.
It suggested just 15% of the differences could be accounted for by levels of deprivation, and 10% by the impact of national events such as policy changes, which affect councils unevenly.
The NAO said the DfE should urgently commission research into overall demand and inequalities between social work activity and spending, and set out how it would work with councils to address unnecessary differences.
‘Frequent line of enquiry’
Responding to the report, Stuart Gallimore, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said that it made clear the drivers of demand for services were not fully understood by the DfE.
“Nor is the variation in spend, despite this being a frequent line of inquiry,” Gallimore added. “Local authorities are being pushed to make savings yet many of the factors fuelling need for help, and influencing spend, such as rising child poverty, deprivation and the increasing prevalence of domestic abuse, substance misuse and poor parental mental health are not within our gift to influence.”
Paul Bywaters, professor of social work at Huddersfield university, welcomed the report’s recommendations that the DfE lead on investigating and reducing unjustified variations between authorities, and its confirmation of the pressures faced by local government generally.
But he added that the NAO’s weighting of likely factors influencing local variations must not be used “to blame local authorities and deflect attention from the impact of austerity on families and services”, particularly in more deprived local authorities.
“How the NAO concluded that only 15% of local authority variation resulted from deprivation is unclear,” said Bywaters, who has led research showing that children in the UK’s poorest communities are more than 10 times likelier to enter the care system than those from the wealthiest areas, and that neighbourhoods’ ethnic makeup can further complicate the picture.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “At a time when budgets are squeezed and councils are under pressure, it is more important than ever that the DfE and local government identify the most vulnerable children before they reach crisis point and make sure they have measures in place to offer the support and protection they need.”