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The dangers of running children's services on a 'fraying shoestring'

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Commentary on LGC children’s social care research

Controversy over communities secretary Sajid Javid lecturing delegates over the Grenfell Tower disaster and the publication of better care fund planning guidance that prioritised hospital pressures over all else dominated discussions at the Local Government Association conference last week.

Away from the disbelief and defiance in Birmingham, Alison Michalska, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, was delivering an impassioned speech at the body’s annual conference that exuded a steely determination to challenge a growing and disturbing injustice.

Ms Michalska spoke of a “juggernaut” of growing demand and complex pressures on children social care services that are close to being run on a fraying shoestring. She warned of the long-term damage to children’s lives and society as a whole caused by a service that is on its way to becoming “wholly reactive”.

Similar concerns were expressed in response to LGC’s exclusive research, published last week, into expenditure on children’s social care. A number of senior figures warned budget pressures were leading to cuts to early intervention services that meant children were entering the system later and with more complex and expensive needs. 

Ms Michalska cited LGA research which predicts a children’s services funding gap of £2bn by 2020. LGC’s research suggests councils spent almost £1bn more on children’s social care than planned over the past three years and shows a potentially dangerous crisis in another service that protects the most vulnerable is moving closer to becoming a reality.

This disturbing momentum is becoming ever more difficult to break, with efforts to manage demand, reduce spending and improve outcomes for children through early help and preventative work being scaled back to ensure statutory duties are met.

Guy Ware, director of finance, performance and procurement at London Councils, told LGC that councils were no longer intervening in cases deemed to be at the lower end of the risk scale.

He admitted that this had led to personal unease that public attention – and consequently political priorities – would not shift until there was another major safeguarding failure.

Former social worker and Blackpool Council leader Simon Blackburn (Lab) said his council, which has the highest looked after children rate in the country, was struggling to cope with increasing demand.

But despite repeatedly making the case to government that help was needed, he now admitted to being resigned to the fact that government was not listening.

Some predicted Justine Greening would not continue as education secretary following the election and many were relieved to be proved wrong. Her role in beginning to improve the relationship between children’s services directors and the Department for Education provides a faint hope that some progress can be made.

Meanwhile, in her speech to the ADCs conference Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman adopted a much more conciliatory tone than her predecessor Sir Michael Wilshaw, describing a close working relationship between the two organisations as “incredibly important to me”. It is also hoped that new children and families minister Robert Goodwill will be a determined advocate for the sector.

As senior local government figures have argued, the longer the government refuses to act to tackle an under-resourced system, the greater the risk that a child will come to serious harm.

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