Five ways to tackle post-Covid challenges for children's services

Michelle Lee-Izu
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Latest research from the Children’s Services Funding Alliance, of which Barnardo’s is a member, estimates that between 2010/11 and 2018/19, funding for children’s and young people’s services has fallen by 23 per cent, from £9.7 to £7.4 billion, while funding per child and young person has fallen by an estimated 26 per cent from £571 to £425.

Collectively, spending on early intervention, such as through children’s centres, family support services and services for young people, was £1.6 billion lower in 2018/19 compared to 2010/11 - a decline of 47 per cent. This reduction in early intervention is only serving to increase the need for late intervention at greater cost and, while investment in late intervention is rising, demand is already outpacing resource. As Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, recently warned: “The stark reality is that the situation for many of the most vulnerable children could get worse over coming months as the economic impact of the virus kicks in.”

The prospect that children who lose out today will continue to lose out tomorrow sends a chill through all of us committed to delivering better outcomes for children and young people.

What can Barnardo’s, with government and local authority partners, do to mitigate this looming harm? Here are my five key ways to tackle the challenges together.

  1. In the next Spending Review, we must see a commitment to long term, sustainable funding, with priority given to innovative partnership working. Any organisation can innovate alone, but innovation in strategic partnership brings a wider range of ideas, deeper expertise and levels of resource and evidence that a single organisation cannot muster.
  2. We need a clear signal from government that an element of risk in innovation is acceptable. Not direct risk to children and young people themselves, but the risk that something new may not deliver the anticipated improvement in outcomes. Innovation is experimental by default. Incremental innovation, quality controlled with robust data, testing and measuring, minimises this risk. We need a safe space in which to say “this isn’t working”, and try something new.
  3. To innovate effectively, commissioners and contractors should start discussions around service design well before a contract is due to be issued or renewed. Early discussions can help shape the contract process for optimal innovation, giving bidding organisations the confidence to offer new approaches. These should replace models of care that may be suboptimal, but are repeated because they are familiar or won bids in the past.
  4. Children, young people, carers and families must be central to service innovation. The Care Review in Scotland rightly calls for “co-design and shared ownership... clearly aligned to [a] user-centred approach to service design”. A care review in England should come to the same conclusion. Barnardo’s has been co-designing with children and young people, and with practitioners, for three years. The closely-managed process, done well, yields valuable insights that can transform the success of a service.
  5. We need to innovate throughout the care journey and pay special attention to early intervention. We must challenge ourselves and ask how many children and young people are now in care because early intervention was inadequate or absent? How much resource do we needlessly spend on later intervention and long-term social problems that could have been avoided years earlier?

Commissioners’ interest in long-term, innovative partnerships has been accelerated by Covid-19. It was incredibly encouraging to see both Jenny Coles, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and Javed Khan, Barnardo’s chief executive, clearly agreeing on the need for long-term funding and closer collaboration when giving evidence to the education select committee recently.

As Javed argued, what we need is “a co-production [to tackle] the problem and the solution, and pooling our resources... that ultimately will have impact”. We have called for an innovation fund to accelerate the creation and sharing of smart new ways of working.

Our funding research also found a strong sense of innovation and creativity in the local authorities we spoke to. They are choosing to reassess and redesign services, and move towards a more outcomes-based approach in evaluating and commissioning services.

They also want to increase access to, and the integration of, services for children and families. One of our innovation projects right now is a Virtual Family Centre that will increase our capability not only during Covid-19, but also into the future - particularly for many families who find it hard to access services during normal working hours.

If there are any positives to be had from this crisis, it is a springboard for accelerated change.

Michelle Lee-Izu, director of children’s services: development and innovation, Barnardo's

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