Emergency services and public servants up and down the country have been working tirelessly to support local communities deal with the devastating effects of recent flooding and now the outbreak of Covid-19, which has just been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation. Amongst all of this, the new government delivered its first Budget, which set out its spending priorities. There were some positive announcements for local businesses and about infrastructure. Unfortunately, the needs of children still do not seem to have the same profile as railways and roads.
Understandably, much of the Budget announcement concentrated on Covid-19 and we are all concerned about the weeks and months ahead. Every council in the land will be implementing contingencies and emergency planning. In children’s services we have many complex duties and responsibilities enshrined in law, statutory guidance, regulation and non-statutory guidance. It is important to remind ourselves that it is possible to depart from statutory guidance with good cause and reason – and Covid-19 is a clear case in point. Of course, one wonders what the regulator might make of such departures but all my experience as a director of children’s services tells me that regular open communication with Ofsted is rarely, if ever, a bad idea. It feels as though we’re entering unchartered waters so it’s essential that we keep a conversation going.
Looking at the rest of the Budget, I can’t help but feel the government has missed a great opportunity to set the tone for the next five years by addressing the significant gap in children’s services funding. We’ve recently heard much talk of ‘austerity coming to an end’ but this is certainly not the case for children and families. Last year, the government boosted school and further education (FE) funding as well as providing some extra money to support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities which, although well short of what we need, signalled that the government at least acknowledged the growing pressures on the high needs block. The short-term respite offered by these measures has not yet been followed-up with the equitable, multi-year funding settlement that we sorely need.
This week’s Budget did include some announcements for children as the Chancellor promised extra funding for teaching art in secondary schools, several new maths schools as well as £1.5 billion capital investment in FE colleges and sixth forms. I absolutely welcome attempts to broaden the curriculum, but there are surely more pressing issues facing children, young people and families that require new focus and funding, such as the truly shameful fact that one in three children are living in poverty. We face a funding gap in children’s services of £3 billion by 2025 and nearly every council in the country is routinely spending more than they receive from central government just to keep children safe and to fulfil our legal duties. While the government has announced some additional funding for social care, we are yet to see the kind of commitment to long-term spending and early help that children and families desperately need. It seems to me that vulnerable children are not on the government’s agenda, nor is it concerned about the widening attainment gap between the most disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers.
The Chancellor also pledged £2.5 million towards research for developing best practice around the integration of services for families. As an Association, we have long called for the government to properly invest in supporting children and families at the earliest possible opportunity. It’s high time that the Treasury started to listen, for the sake of our children, their present and our future.
To quote the Chancellor, let’s give children "security today but also a plan for prosperity tomorrow".
Rachel Dickinson is president 2019/20 of the Association of Directors of Children's Services. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website