“Short-termist” government funding for children’s services is “destabilising” councils’ ability to plan and sustain services in the medium to long-term.
That was the warning from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in its seventh Safeguarding Pressures report, the ADCS’s series of studies of the demands on councils in relation to children’s social care, early help and related services.
The report, based on evidence from 129 councils, found that 80% of the 71 directors of children’s services (DCSs) who responded on this point said they received at least one additional government grant other than those available to all councils.
This was generally acquired through bidding for ring-fenced short-term funds, such as for piloting the national assessment and accreditation system (NAAS) for child and family social workers or for sector-led improvement money.
Examples of short-term funds
The report said: “Whilst these grants are valued when received, respondents pointed out the inequity of awarding grant funding through bidding processes, some feeling very keenly that the resources required to submit a bid were significant and may well be unsuccessful.
“This short-termist approach to children’s services funding is unsustainable and destabilises the ability to plan and sustain services in the medium to long term.”
Along with the fact that the government only provided a one-year funding settlement for councils and government departments in 2021-22, instead of a longer-term spending review, DCSs cited this issue as the fourth biggest funding pressure they faced. The top three were placement costs for children in care, increases in demand and complexity of need and special educational needs and disability services.
Based on data supplied by 63 authorities, the ADCS found that councils were – as of September 2020 – projecting a shortfall in resource of £824m in children’s services for 2020-21, about 9% of budget and a similar figure to that in the ADCS’s previous Safeguarding Pressures study, in 2018.
While 56% of respondents reported increasing their budgets over the previous two years, rises in placement costs and demand outstripped this in some cases.
Looking ahead, 71% of DCSs who responded said they felt that “resources are exhausted following relentless increased demand, costs and savings targets”.
Rising demand starting to plateau
The study charted 12 years of mounting demands on children’s services since the first Safeguarding Pressures report – during which time councils have been subject to significant funding cuts or constraints.
Overall, initial contacts with children’s social care were 87% up in 2019-20 on 2007-8 levels, referrals were 19% up, section 47 child protection enquiries 162% up, children subject to child protection plans 78% up and children in care 34% up.
However, there was some evidence of demand plataeuing or falling in certain areas over the past two years, during which time referrals had fallen by 2%, children in need (excluding child protection and looked after) 10%, children subject to child protection plans 5% and children starting to be looked after 4%.
The ADCS report attributed this to the impact of investments in new models of care or transformation programmes, which it said was leading to reduced referrals, child protection plans and looked-after children numbers in some authorities. These included the family safeguarding model – pioneered by Hertfordshire council, implemented in four other authorities and now being adopted by nine others. A Department for Education-funded evaluation of the model last year found that it was effective in reducing the numbers of child protection plans and children entering care.
However, the report stressed that models such as family safeguarding and no wrong door – an approach to supporting children on the edge of care pioneered by North Yorkshire council – required time to deliver results.
“There is a sense, however, that unless we can meet the needs of children and families earlier, children’s services will continue to face a cycle of funded overspends in order to maintain essential services for children and their families,” the report said.
While most of the data from the report related to 2019-20, it also assessed the first six months of the pandemic, from April to September 2020.
While referrals fell overall during this time, DCSs reported that more children were referred who were not previously known to social care, as families who were previously managing were now in significant need. In addition, more children were presenting at a later stage, once issues were complex and entrenched, and then immediately becoming subjects of child protection plans or care proceedings.
ADCS president Jenny Coles said: “The true effect of the pandemic on children, families and children’s services is not yet known and will be felt for many years to come. For many, this will have exacerbated pre-existing challenges such as poverty, hunger, parental ill health and domestic abuse. National recovery plans must extend beyond mitigating lost learning.”
The report pointed to the wider impact of Covid-19 on council finances, with new funding pressures, lost income from services and a reduced tax base. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated in August that this had left a £2bn hole in town hall coffers, once government pandemic funding had been taken into account.
Funding needed ‘to enable children to thrive, not just survive’
Coles added: The government must provide the sector with a sustainable, equitable and long-term financial settlement that enables children to thrive, not just survive in the wake of the pandemic by supporting them early. We are all committed to making this a country that works for all children, we urgently need the backing of government to make this happen.”
In response to the report, a DfE spokesperson said: “Supporting and protecting vulnerable families has been at the heart of our response throughout this pandemic, which is why we have kept schools, nurseries and colleges open to vulnerable children including those with social workers. We’ve invested millions in frontline charities that are directly supporting these children and our independent review of children’s social care will look at ways to improve existing support for the most vulnerable.
“Our data shows there has been no discernable spike in referrals to children’s social care services between April 2020 and January 2021, compared to the three years prior, but the department continues to monitor these pressures during the pandemic.”