Adequately funding children’s services to provide capacity across the spectrum of need and risk is “crucial” to improving outcomes for families and saving on costly interventions, a Department for Education-commissioned report has said.
The evaluation of the second-round of projects delivered via the Innovation Programme said the extra capacity provided by the programme grants was the “overarching, critical enabler” of their success.
This included making sure social workers and their departments had time to devote to delivering direct work, providing training and skilled supervision to properly embed practice models, and integrating multi-disciplinary support – especially around mental health – within teams.
“This raises the question of whether projects will be able to sustain positive progress when the funding ends, particularly where baseline circumstances were challenging,” it warned.
The report also noted that a number of the Innovation Programme-funded schemes had demonstrated the potential cost benefits of investing in intensive early help services. “There may be advantages to introducing longer-term frameworks for budgeting children’s services, on the basis that greater spending now can generate greater savings in future,” it said.
The findings come as many councils are issuing dire warnings about cuts they may have to deliver – including to preventative services – as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s financial impact and longer-term budgetary pressures. There has also been disappointment across the sector at the government’s decision to drop its plan for a three-year government spending review, including for councils, in favour of a funding settlement covering just 2021-22.
Scrutiny committee reports published by Manchester council last week warned that an inadequate funding package from the spending review could devastate the city’s early help services, leading to “compromised” specialist support, rising social work caseloads and unmet need.
Meanwhile, the government has launched a review of Croydon council after an auditors’ report identified longstanding social care budgeting weaknesses, with the authority beginning a programme of cuts, including to children’s services.
The second round of innovation programme funding, worth £200m, began in 2016 and has supported 50 projects, including some continued from the initial round, over the past four years.
The projects have spanned the spectrum of services, from children in need of help and protection to those in or on the edge of care, or leaving the care system, with a handful focused on families experiencing domestic abuse.
They include Partners in Practice (PiP) initiatives via which successful authorities support struggling peers, Hackney council’s contextual safeguarding pilot and the Pause project to deliver intensive support to women who have had children removed.
Five projects – the PiP schemes delivered by Achieving for Children and Lincolnshire council, Pause, the Inside Out initiative to support young people in care, and the family safeguarding approach, which integrates adult workers within social work teams – achieved statistically significant impacts against their aims, the evaluation found. The latter three projects also demonstrated “strong evidence” of cost benefits, it added.
More than a dozen other programmes produced less clear-cut evidence of positive outcomes, while others had mixed results, in some cases because authorities did not achieve structural stabilty for them to flourish.
Among the key factors the review identified as contributing to good outcomes were:
- Developing relationship-based practice, including in some cases actively working to flatten status hierarchies between social workers and people they support, or to replace didactic with collaborative approaches to enhance trust with families.
- Using and training in coherent and evidence-informed practice methodologies, including among residential staff and foster carers.
- Delivering integrated multi-disciplinary support, enabling group case discussion, for children and families, and improving multi-agency collaboration.
- Meaningfully consulting on and co-producing services, including with children and families.
- Putting in place measures that increase social workers’ time, such as administrative support and effective IT systems
Among a series of recommendations, the report also stressed the importance of properly planning change projects within children’s services, again noting that this required dedicated research resources.
It added that the sector needed to consider measures to protect organisational memory from being compromised when people involved with projects move on. In the longer term, this may require the DfE to address the ongoing turnover of senior leaders within children’s services departments, the review said.
‘Robust and rich evidence’
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children remains our priority. That’s why we have made significant investments to improve services for these children, including over £12 million this financial year to provide extra support during the pandemic through our Innovation Programme.
“These reports provide a robust and rich evidence base to inform how councils and practitioners can best support our most vulnerable children and their families, by making sure the services there to protect them are efficient and by sharing what works.”
Association of Directors of Children’s Services vice-president Charlotte Ramsden said: “ADCS welcomes many of the findings in this report which supports issues that we have been raising with government for many years, namely; the need for long-term investment, the value of early intervention, and the importance of developing the wider children’s workforce.
“As the report notes, the additional Innovation Programme funding was key for the projects to meet their aims and this must be sustained to allow them to continue their positive progress. ADCS urges the Department for Education tosupport local authorities in our calls for a sustainable, long-term funding settlement from the Treasury. One that allows us to put in place the kind of approaches that we know builds consistent, trusting relationships with childrenand their families and therefore improves lives.”