Goodwill must heed the funding warnings
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
It is still hard to assess the significance of the general election outcome for children and young people.
The abandonment of headline policies - such as expanding grammar schools or withdrawing free school meals - speak mainly to what will not happen, rather than telling us what will. There is a widespread feeling that we are rapidly reaching "tipping points" of wholesale systemic concern - especially in the care system, special educational needs and disability services, and in childcare - that are yet to be fully acknowledged, politically, and will demand more significant action than any yet on offer.
It is a pressing context facing new children's minister Robert Goodwill, his brief spanning responsibilities previously held by two ministers. Addressing directors of children's services recently, it was clear he recognises the need to listen to the sector on these policy areas.
No one should underestimate the scale of the problems now sitting on his desk. The challenge for all of us (including the Department for Education) is to recognise that the two biggest systemic threats to children's wellbeing and outcomes are policies and financial decisions that lie, namely, beyond the current scope of the DfE altogether; child poverty (benefits and housing policies) and local government finance.
All children's services departments are suffering the sustained effect of the withdrawal of formula grants by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) - 40 per cent cut since 2010, and 100 per cent withdrawal by 2020, under plans outlined in Local Government Finance Bill. The omission of the bill from the Queen's Speech is perhaps a sign that the dire consequences of such a plan have been grasped. However, we cannot rely on the DCLG to see beyond the presenting crises in social housing and adult social care to recognise fully the impact of their cuts on children's social care. We must be active in arguing for the creation of a "children in need" funding formula that ensures adequate and sustainable funding to all councils from the Treasury's resources.
Child poverty was a dominant refrain at the recent Association of Directors of Children's Services conference, and it is absolutely right that we should focus on it. The benefit cap is still in force, despite court rulings that it breaches children's rights; the two-child benefit policy and pernicious rape clause exemption are still on the books; benefits freezes are being maintained as the cost of living continues to rise; universal credit is still set for roll-out even though we know from pilots that it doubles food bank use and destitution. Low pay and zero-hours contracts blight the nation, including within the very services children rely on. Government policies are creating child poverty; different government policies could end it.
Ending poverty, and its well-proven correlation with demand for social care, would be the single greatest "transformation" agenda in the history of all children's services. As he is genuinely in listening mode, we should leave the new minister in no doubt about it.