The head of the children’s social care review has urged ministers to prioritise early help, and additional placements and mental health services for looked-after children for “urgent investment” over the coming years.
Josh MacAlister’s call came in a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson and chief secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay designed to influence the government’s spending review, scheduled for the autumn and due to set funding plans for 2022-25.
MacAlister, who was appointed by the Department for Education to lead the review in January, has only set out a high-level “case for change” from his review so far, with firm recommendations due next year in his final report.
But his contract with government requires the DfE to share early findings from the care review to inform the department’s bid for money from the Treasury in the spending review. However, the same contract stipulates that the DfE cannot assume additional funding to implement the care review’s recommendations and that it must show how any additional expenditure could be offset by savings across government over time.
Spending ‘increasingly skewed towards acute services’
In the case for change, published in June, MacAlister highlighted the potential for investment in early help in particular to yield savings, reversing the significant shift in local authority funding from preventive to statutory interventions, particularly child protection, over the past decade. In his letter to Williamson and Barclay, he said local authority spending was “increasingly skewed towards acute services” and called for “significant additional funding for effective family help” to reduce demand for higher-end interventions.
MacAlister said that “help should be available to any family that is facing significant challenges that could pose a threat to providing their child with a loving, stable, safe family life”. He said this should include parents of disabled children and kinship care arrangements, in order to prevent children going into care.
He stressed additional investment should reach families directly instead of “being subsumed by increased complexity or overheads in the system”, and that it should be provided on a cross-government basis to avoid creating new pots of money
For example, MacAlister said the Department for Work and Pensions’ Covid local support grant, paid to local authorities to help vulnerable families particularly affected by the pandemic, should be replaced when it expires next month, with social workers and other professionals able to access this funding.
MacAlister also called for the spending review to find extra resource for placements for children in care, particularly to tackle a “severe” lack of accommodation for teenagers, secure accommodation shortages and “children being sent many miles from their families and communities”.
These issues have been raised repeatedly in recent years including by former Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield, Ofsted and, last week, in a report to MacAlister’s review by North East directors of children’s services.
While the DfE recently announced a fund to build children’s homes, MacAlister did not explicitly call for new homes to be built, suggesting shared care models involving birth families and enabling foster and kinship carers “to create additional rooms in their own homes”. While the case for change called for improvements in quality of children’s homes, it also said there was a question over “the extent to which they should play a role in our long term vision for care”.
But the Independent Children’s Homes Association criticised MacAlister’s call for more foster and kinship carer placements. “There is a potential that Josh’s call for increased beds in foster and kinship homes runs the risk of setting up residential care homes under another name, but without the level of input required to help our most vulnerable children,” said deputy chief executive Liz Cooper. “Caring for our complex children is hard and asking foster carers to do this for more children, without increasing their personnel infrastructure, is likely to lead to more placement breakdowns.”
Call for shift away from profit
He told Williamson and Barclay that new investment should be based on keeping children as close as possible to their families and communities and shifting provision from for-profit towards public and not-for-profit alternatives.
The latter theme is one MacAlister has repeated often since being appointed review lead, including by urging competition regulator the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to undertake a study of the children’s social care market, which it subsequently agreed to do.
MacAlister’s third area for investment was improving the mental health of children in care, saying he had been told “time and again since I began the review that many children in care are suffering from extremely poor mental health and struggling to get meaningful support”.
He said contributors to the review had suggested investing in training practitioners across health, education and social care in therapeutic responses children as an alternative to child and adolescent mental health services, which he said continued to face high demand.
MacAlister said the three areas were among those with the most urgent need for investment, and this did not constitute the review’s recommendations definitive findings. He said he would publish full recommendations next year in the expectation that a “future fiscal event”, after the spending review, “will provide the investment needed for implementation”.