We need a broad definition of children in need

When the government announced its review of children in need, a legal definition of children supported by social care who have safeguarding and welfare needs, we hoped it would have a wide remit and seek to understand how well these children's needs are being met.

Instead, the Department for Education has limited its review to educational attainments.

While this is an admirable objective, it doesn't get to the heart of the crisis in children's social care and the considerable funding gap, which will reach £2bn by 2020 according to the Local Government Association.

The government review assumes that children in need are the six per cent of the population currently receiving support from social care teams.

Children in need are those children on child in need and child protection plans, looked-after children, young carers, and disabled children - often with severe mental health challenges. All of these children have identified needs, meaning they should receive services and support in order to have the same health and development opportunities as others.

But what about the children that councils have been unable to identify and support? An NCB survey of lead members for children's services found that four in 10 said they didn't have enough money to meet one or more of their statutory duties to children. More than a third lacked the resources to support children in need. Surely this means that there are children who don't meet the review's narrow definition?

The report No good options, launched in March 2017, demonstrated the challenges children's services are facing, particularly in relation to children in need under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 whose wellbeing is at risk if help isn't provided.

Inconsistency among English councils in the number of section 17 children was particularly stark, especially for those in need of lower level early help. The follow-up inquiry into thresholds for children's social care is hearing evidence of a similar pattern - greater inconsistency and a bigger gap in provision when it comes to children in need when compared to children in care or subject to a child protection plan.

Of course, educational attainment for this group is important. For children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND), for example, we must ensure that early years settings have the resources and expertise to offer free childcare that is accessible to this group of children.

If the funding gap for children's social care is leaving councils struggling to meet their legal duties to children in need then something is clearly wrong. There are many children who meet the criteria for being a child in need who get no help, or certainly less than their peers in other areas. Only an effort across services, not just in schools and backed by proper resourcing, can we hope for real improvement in outcomes for all children in need.

Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive at National Children's Bureau

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