A welfare and support system in crisis

John Freeman
Friday, April 20, 2018

Most of the recent domestic political rhetoric has related to the crises in the NHS and in adult social care. I'm not minimising those - there are increased costs for both, with an ageing population and more things to go wrong as people live longer. But services for children, both universal and targeted, have also been suffering from years of incremental cuts, and these cuts are impacting ever more sharply - there is no slack anywhere in the system. Even in large, well-run local authorities with economies of scale, services are reaching breaking point. The youth service is largely no more, and council-run services such as music, drama and sports are disappearing fast.

While local authority and school budgets are being squeezed until the pips squeak and beyond, family income has not been keeping up with inflation, savings are at a historically low rate, and the benefits system is being reworked to reduce costs - nominally, to encourage people back into work. Work itself is becoming both more demanding, less rewarding and less reliable, with zero-hours contracts and the gig economy. As a result, more children than ever before are in poverty and, if anything, this will get worse, with the retail sector under huge pressure and manufacturing employers reporting both increased uncertainty and a reluctance to employ new staff as a consequence of Brexit. Increases in council tax are absolutely vital but will place yet more pressure on household budgets.

The social effect of this is becoming increasingly apparent, with schools, and sometimes individual teachers, being asked to fill the gap left as social care thresholds are raised and only the most serious cases can be supported. Two statistics only will suffice to emphasise this point. First, if you earn more than £7,400 and are a new recipient of universal credit your children will not be eligible for free school meals - second, across the country about 30 per cent of children already live in poverty.

Jane Jenkins, the head of an inner-city primary school in Cardiff, is typical in reporting that: "Poverty on paper seems to be getting better, with free school meals down, but the reality is completely the reverse - poverty is becoming more extreme. Benefit entitlement rules are shutting more families out of the system."

All this leads to families under huge stress, contributing to increases in mental health problems, poor nutrition, low educational achievement, and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, alongside a substantial increase in safeguarding concerns. At the same time, the recruitment and retention of the professionals at the front line - social workers and teachers, and headteachers - is increasingly in crisis, with a high-stakes accountability system that is not geared to meet the challenges of the real world.

None of this should be taken as condoning poor performance where it takes place, but the context in which services are being delivered is vastly different and more challenging to that of only a decade ago.

Can anyone wonder why services for children are in crisis?

John Freeman is a children's services consultant and former DCS