Time to rethink funding of children's services

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Research by the Local Government Association (LGA) and Newton reveals how deprivation accounts for half the variation in spending on children's services between councils (see Analysis). The LGA and children's services leaders believe the findings could be a game changer in their bids to lobby the government for more money for children's services. Crucially, they say it "kicks into the long grass" the argument put forward by successive ministers that variation in spend reflects inefficiencies and poor practice among councils.

Even armed with the Newton research, it will be hard for council leaders to change ministers' minds. However, the recent reports by the Care Crisis Review and Institute for Fiscal Studies add to the weight of evidence on the deepening financial problem in the sector.

A significant cash injection is needed if further deep cuts to non-statutory services are to be avoided. However, leaders must use the Association of Directors of Children's Services annual conference this month to argue for deeper reforms.

Tackling the causes of child poverty is a job for central government, but these findings reinforce the need to rethink how money is allocated to councils with the highest levels of deprivation. Policymakers must do more to support councils to protect early help spending and encourage investment in services that prevent the need for costly interventions. Creating a national early intervention strategy - including a commitment to the Troubled Families programme beyond 2020 - would offer the prospect of locking in system change.

Although the Newton research finds different professional practices account for just 13 per cent of variation in spending, it is the part of the equation over which children's leaders have most control. There will always be differences in practice to reflect local priorities and circumstances, but a national discussion about the most efficient and effective ways of working is needed. Commissioners of care services play a crucial role in this - spending on looked-after children accounts for half of children's services budgets - but evidence suggests commissioning practice is inconsistent across the country (see Special Report).

The government is yet to respond to the fostering stocktake, which called for greater regional collaboration in the commissioning of foster care services to improve the sharing of good practice. The government should use the stocktake as an opportunity to review commissioning practice across all children's care services and consider the role that national commissioning could play in improving efficiency.

Derren Hayes is editor of Children & Young People Now

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