The coronavirus crisis offers the government a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to address racial and geographical inequalities between children, which the pandemic has exposed and amplified, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has warned.
In a report published today the association urged the Department for Education (DfE) to heed the lessons of the last few months and to push for “equitable and sustainable” funding for children’s services as part of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda to improve left-behind regional economies.
The report reiterated the ADCS’s calls for such funding to prioritise preventive services, adding that there was a need for “urgent strategic action” to reshape investment in children and families across government. It said pilot schemes that have been shown to improve outcomes for children – and by extension, to reduce costly interventions at a time when local authority financial positions have got even tougher – should be rolled out nationally without delay.
“The DfE are going to have to work really hard to take leadership for children because other departments have a whole load of pressures, which will continue, and other priorities,” the ADCS president Jenny Coles told Community Care in an interview ahead of the paper’s publication.
“The DfE is the department for children and will have to stand up for them,” Coles added. “They have the job of bringing things together and they must take that.”
Since schools closed in March, causing a steep drop in referrals to children’s services, fears have grown about the scale of the eventual rebound amid rising domestic abuse reports and accounts of child exploitation evolving during lockdown.
Social care referrals are now once more accelerating, the ADCS report warned, fuelled in part by a “cohort of newly vulnerable families” where children are experiencing domestic abuse, neglect and financial hardship.
Recent analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), it added, suggested an additional 200,000 children could be plunged into poverty by the end of 2020 as a result of the pandemic’s impact on incomes.
“Most local authorities have now seen an increase to normal referral levels – think [about] the stuff that is still hidden, with very few kids in school,” Coles said.
“The pressures that will emerge over summer and especially autumn will not be a [brief] moment in time,” she added, referring to her prediction in a Community Care interview earlier this year that services would face at least 18 months of increased demand.
Despite that spike not having yet arrived, the new report noted that councils – which, the Local Government Association estimated, faced an estimated £3.1bn gap by 2024-25 in the funding required to maintain children’s social care services at 2019-20 levels – had already incurred extra costs adapting to coronavirus.
Moreover, only 8% of the first £3.2bn in extra funding allocated to councils by the government to meet the additional costs had been spent on children’s social care services, with ADCS members worrying that by the time referrals surge the money will have run out. Since then, the government has allocated an extra £500m to authorities and promised to compensate councils for most of their lost income in non-commercial fees and charges for services and at least some of their lost council tax and business rate income.
“It isn’t just about social work but about early help – and also local charities, some of which have been really stretched to keep going,” Coles said of the broader picture. “Domestic abuse is a good example – a whole load of different funding streams, going to charities from different sources, some of which will finish at the end of this financial year.”
Pros and cons
In common with a number of recent studies, including Community Care’s national survey of practitioners on the impact of the pandemic, the ADCS report concluded that social work practice had been – and will continue to be – seriously disrupted by Covid-19.
As well as the challenges posed by virtual contact with children and families, changes to working practices had been stressful for many and posed a “risk of burnout and fatigue” across the workforce, it said.
But the document added that positive changes wrought by necessity, months or years before they might have otherwise taken place, must not be forgotten. It called on the government to recognise and retain innovative practices developed during the coronavirus outbreak, especially where these better met the preferences of children and families.
“The use of technology and the whole ability for virtual contact as an addition to face-to-face has been very positive and feedback, especially from children in care, has been quite strong,” Coles said. “It’s also meant that at a partnership level, partners – especially health colleagues – have been able to contribute to child in need and child protection [meetings], which they have often found really difficult.”
Practice changes, Coles acknowledged, will need to be embedded into local authorities’ quality assurance systems and carefully monitored to ensure they do not cause families injustice – particularly given the likely pressures of the coming months. She said that Ofsted – which will not be conducting formal inspections until next year, but will begin visiting children’s services from September – may be able to assist in evaluating practice.
‘No going back’
As mentioned in her presidential address, delivered virtually last week, Coles told Community Care she also saw a role for the what works centres set up by the government in evaluating and guiding the sector’s longer-term response to Covid-19 and its impact on childhood.
“Lots of good work has gone into them and we need to make sure we use that evidence base,” Coles said. “There is an ambition from What Works for Children’s Social Care to bring the work of the different centres together and the ADCS is keen to link with that.”
Coles added that conversations to this effect had already been going on with the DfE. She said there was a desire not only to draw on work already carried out by the centres but to redirect their future focus onto the impact of coronavirus and the best paths forward for services.
“There will not be a going back – our staff are saying, there are positives to this, as well as stuff not so positive, and they have moved practice on,” she said. “We will have to develop our practice and this is where [they can help], doing research to ensure practice going forward is the best it can be.”
In terms of feeding into the aspirations of the ADCS report, developing practice to tackle inequalities will mean “engaging with communities, and changing our approach”, Coles said.
“It’s about how social workers link in with their communities, looking at assessment processes and how they support children and families from diverse communities, understanding their experiences and what barriers are [between] them being able to access opportunities, especially access to early support,” she said.
“We really need to look at that, because of the disproportionate numbers of children from different backgrounds in the child protection and care systems,” Coles said. “It leads back to central government funding, policy and ambition – lots of pledges have been made recently both locally and nationally, now we need to put those into action.”