The number of children in care has never been so high, rising by 4% over the last year alone and by 2025, the funding gap for children’s services is expected to rise to £3.1bn. In 2017-18, nine out of 10 councils were already overspending and this continued, despite the injection of an additional £542m in 2018-19.
Clearly, more funding alone – including the new funding commitment announced last week – cannot reverse the trend of rising demand for children’s services. There needs to be a pivotal shift in focus to prevention and early intervention, with a new approach to service design and delivery.
Our new report From Tiny Acorns: Communities shaping the future of children’s services released today argues that it is time to revive the community’s latent potential and ensure that local assets and available resources are truly maximised.
Imagine a future where community hubs and children’s centres are thriving and run by members of the community, rather than being shut down following the trend in recent years. With the right supporting policy framework, this alternate future for children’s services may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
In fact, some elements of this model hark back to pre-welfare state models of public service delivery, which relied on volunteers and local organisations to provide basic services. If the transactional model of service delivery of the last century has inadvertently put communities’ capability to sleep, the significant challenge facing children’s services today makes it more urgent than ever to re-activate their latent potential.
In fact, growing the capability of communities and maximising local assets and resources could be the missing piece of the puzzle, helping to shift the focus of children’s services to prevention and addressing the dual challenge of rising demand and the impact of unprecedented funding cuts in recent years.
As we confront this complex problem, children’s services teams need to become better at working in partnership with children and families themselves – seeing them as an important part of the solution. The first step to shifting the focus to prevention is to make children’s services an integrated part of the whole council vision and strategy.
Several councils and trusts are leading the way, including Wigan through its Children and Young People Deal and Leeds through its Child Friendly Leeds programme. Others, such as Doncaster, have actively involved children in care and care leavers in designing its Children’s Services Trust strategy through its Young Advisors initiative. Such an approach ensures that children’s services are not seen in isolation, and that wider decisions do not impact negatively on children’s services.
But we need to go further, faster, and it will be important for all local authorities to review how they could make the limited resources available to them go even further in improving outcomes for children and families. This means asking some difficult questions to make sure that spending decisions are appropriately targeting need and clearly linked to achieving the best outcomes for children. Where this is not the case, it should signal the need to step back and reconfigure service packages to better suit demand.
In Norfolk, for example, a two-way engagement with children and foster carers facilitates a better understanding of need, skills and resources – ultimately making it easier to plan for the right level of support. This enables the council to better match the needs of the children with the skills and knowledge of the foster carers. This approach has not only helped increase the capacity of foster care, but also generated some significant savings for the council.
Government of course has a vital role to play, not least in reframing national policy to support councils and communities to collaborate to tackle the challenges of children’s services at the local level. Our report sets out the priorities for this new framework, particularly in relation to inspection and funding, that supports collaboration and a greater focus on early intervention in this vital area of public service.
This article first appeared in The Local Government Chronicle on 10th September 2019.