In my address to the National Children and Adult Services Conference last month, I shared headline findings from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ Safeguarding Pressures Phase 5 research.
It showed for the year ending 31 March 2016 that 2.2 million initial contacts were made to children’s social care, of which 610,000 became referrals; 580,000 social care assessments were undertaken; there were 280,000 children in need; 71,000 children were in care and 35,000 left care. It is in this testing context that councils strive to provide high-quality services to meet local needs against a backdrop of austerity.
Sadly, when local budgets are under pressure, non-statutory parts of the system are the most vulnerable to spending cuts, reducing capacity in the system to intervene earlier and driving up demand for more serious, and costly, interventions later on.
Some councils, out of necessity, are ‘firefighting’: using their limited resources on high-end services rather than investing in preventative services, despite knowing this is where we can make the strongest difference to children and young people’s outcomes.
Ofsted’s social care report 2016 made an interesting observation in that it found no correlation between spending and the quality of services; high spending does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. However, it suggested there was a correlation between high-performing local authorities and good allocation of resources.
Shifting away from reactive spending and towards spending on earlier intervention is no easy task. For a while it will be necessary to invest in both early help and statutory child protection work and when budgets are tight this is difficult thing to do, but in time we will begin to realise the benefits. Meeting need earlier, before problems escalate, means less child protection work, fewer children in care and more manageable caseloads for social workers who can then spend more time developing meaningful, lasting relationships with children and families.
There is a strong argument for getting a better balance between spending on firefighting and early intervention and while I’m not suggesting this will be an easy undertaking, especially in such austere times, local government should lead the debate about taking fewer children into care by investing in services that prevent problems from worsening or even arising in the first place.
Dave Hill, president, Association of Directors of Children’s Services and director of people commissioning, Essex CC