Reducing the importance of deprivation in the funding formula for council services will hamper the fight against poverty and could make children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect, the new president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has warned.
In an interview with LGC, Rachel Dickinson, who is Barnsley MBC’s director of children’s services, also said poverty was driving demand for special educational needs (SEN) support and a key factor in the increase in youth violence.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government’s proposed ‘foundation’ formula, which was consulted on earlier this year, would determine levels of funding for around a third of upper tier services. This would mean the funding of services including parks, libraries and homelessness prevention would be primarily based on population rather than deprivation.
Ms Dickinson, who replaced Stuart Gallimore as ADCS president in April, said rising levels of deprivation, with about four million children now living in poverty in the UK, “affects all outcomes” and correlates with increased instances of domestic abuse, parental distress, mental health issues and substance misuse.
“Challenging family environments create the conditions for social and emotional behavioural difficulties”
Deprivation will be included in formulas for three of the remaining six service areas, including children’s services, but Ms Dickinson said she was “significantly concerned” that it has not been included in the foundation formula.
She said: “It is important to recognise that children don’t just benefit from children’s services, they benefit from a whole range of services that councils provide and need is across the spectrum.
“The work supporting the development of community capacity, growing strength in communities will all be affected, yet those communities which have greater levels of deprivation need more support across the piece.”
Ms Dickinson also warned that the proposed foundation formula could impact on initiatives to help working parents out of “low skilled, zero-hours contracts that create chaos for family life” and hinder efforts to improve access to transport.
She said the lack of a final proposal for the children’s services formula meant it would be “incredibly late in the day” to assess the impact if it remains the intention to implement it in 2020-21. As LGC has reported, in recent weeks expectation has been growing that the introduction of new funding formulas will be delayed.
Ms Dickinson said the omission of deprivation from the foundation formula has fuelled concerns amongst directors of children’s services about how much emphasis the government places on poverty as a factor in funding. She said disadvantaged children require greater levels of support from a range of services than their counterparts in more affluent areas.
“This is perverse and makes us generally more nervous about any future government proposals,” she added. “My aim is that the children’s formula gives appropriate weighting to deprivation but that the foundation block also incorporates deprivation too so that all the direct and indirect needs of a child are fairly recognised in the final funding allocations.”
Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the number of children in relative poverty will have risen from 3.6 million to 4.3 million by 2020 as a result of tax and benefit decisions taken since 2010.
Ms Dickinson highlighted the End Child Poverty Coalition’s recent analysis of government data by parliamentary constituency which found stark differences at a local level. In 10 constituencies, largely in London, Birmingham and Manchester, more than 50% of children live below the poverty line; at a neighbourhood level there was an even greater variation, with 70% of children in one Lancashire town living below the poverty line.
Ms Dickinson said children’s social care services, which the Local Government Association estimates are facing a £3.1bn funding gap by 2025, are now at “a tipping point in relation to our ability to intervene early and well to prevent things going badly wrong in children’s lives”.
The scale of poverty presented a “massive issue” as a key factor in increasing demand at a time when councils’ resources have significantly reduced.
“If you grew up in a home blighted by poverty, where there are concerns about the basics – food, heating, suitable housing – and your parent or carer might be having to undertake multiple jobs to try to make ends meet, then that inevitably impacts on children’s life chances,” Ms Dickinson said.
Poverty is also contributing to increasing demand for SEN support, which “is getting more and more challenging”. “The reality is the circumstances many children are growing up in create challenging family environments for children, which in turn create the conditions for children to have more social and emotional behavioural difficulties,” Ms Dickinson said.
However, rising demand is causing more schools to seek to work with councils and health commissioners and providers to “discharge their statutory and moral obligation to support children to have the best start in life”, Ms Dickinson said.
“It is creating a drive for more schools to come together in partnerships because the issues that are affecting children’s lives and their outcomes are not ones that one part of the system can resolve,” Ms Dickinson said.
“It would be wrong to say that is universal across the country and there are different degrees of strength of school and council relationships, but we are learning how to form partnerships in a very fractured world.”
She said rising youth violence, reflected in recent high-profile cases in London, was being driven by a range of factors, including poverty and “related disaffection” as well as reductions in general support for teenagers due to austerity.
Social media, targeted recruitment by organised criminals and the reaction of some schools to certain behaviour, which has led to a rise in exclusions, had all increased risk in teenage years.
“The inability to put a strong net around vulnerability in the teenage years has to play its part, including that additional pastoral support in schools, youth provision and the reduction in the youth justice grant,” she said.
Gap between directors and assistants is growing
Cuts to government spending have had an impact on the development of leaders in children’s social care, Ms Dickinson said, after central funding for leadership programmes was scrapped when Michael Gove was education secretary.
She added the Department for Education has recently shown a desire to address this “because they can see there is in an issue with the succession”. ”Because of austerity it is harder for people to develop themselves,” Ms Dickinson said. “We have got so much to do, taking time out to pay attention to your development is challenging.”
She also said many directors of children’s services roles now have additional responsibilities which means the “gap between an assistant director and a director is greater”.
“The development support and the coaching to enable people who are capable to bridge that gap is greater but there are lots of people who have the capability,” Ms Dickinson said. “It is about supporting their development to a position where they feel confident and have developed sufficient capabilities to discharge their responsibilities.”