As the adage goes, children are our future. But if we remain in a reactive spending cycle on acute services, we aren’t giving them or ourselves much of a chance.
According to the latest figures, the amount of expected spending on children’s social care in 2018-19 is up 6.8%, or £542m, from last year. Child protection enquiries have risen by more than 150% in a decade, but government funding has fallen – to the point where we are now facing a £2 billion funding gap.
Most councils will tell you children’s services are their biggest concern for unplanned spending, leaving them with little choice other than to protect budgets for acute need. This is at the cost of investing upstream to create the right conditions for all children to thrive.
This in mind, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that “it takes a village to raise a child”, and this means thinking more widely about the places we are creating for our young.
In my last major project as Solace president, I want us to shift the focus from acute services and understand how leaders can use the wider network of support – the ‘village’ – to address some causes of demand. This would entail creating places centred on providing better futures for our children, inverting the current funnel.
Reports on the finances of children’s services have been stacking up. The Children’s Commissioner’s report on Public Spending on Children in England showed that the country now spends nearly half its entire children’s services budget on 73,000 children in the care system. This leaves the other half for the remaining 11.7 million kids.
Likewise, a comprehensive study by the University of Oxford in 2016 into children’s centres in England showed that when properly funded Sure Start worked, contributing to less disruptive home lives, better maternal mental health and improved social skills.
We now know that over 1,000 Sure Start centres have closed, as councils made the tough decision to protect mainstream and acute services, including education for those aged 4-16, and for children in care.
I’m under no illusion that simply investing in the Sure Start programme again would solve our problems. Like many I’ve posed the question: “People coped before Sure Start, so what’s changed?”
I grew up in a single parent family on a council estate, and was required as a child to care for my younger siblings. Nowadays that would meet social care thresholds, but it was the network of strong family and neighbours supporting our family that kept us safe, well and thriving.
When people ask what’s changed, I’d say our operating model for social care is based more on risk and accountability. It is right that we take child protection seriously, but sometimes it means we can’t make use of less formal forms of care and intervention available in the community.
Second, much of the network and resilient community I experienced, alongside the general fabric of a connected community, has eroded.
We need to be aware of factors like the housing and welfare reform which drive demand for acute services. Acknowledging this means we can think about better mobilising resources across our communities, restoring their resilience and strength.
Solace will explore some of the themes I’ve set out above, asking what the wider safety net looks like and how we can create resilient families and communities so that demand doesn’t keep rising on the acute side.
If we can show how many elements of infrastructure and place-building go into creating the right conditions for families to thrive, we have a better chance of using public sector resources well to achieve that.
As part of the work we’d love to hear what councils are proud about. This goes for good practice and case studies in children’s services and schools, but also in housing, parks, urban design and civic participation.
It’s right that we should show what we’re capable of. Even with depleted finances under greater scrutiny, we’re here to create places where people thrive, and not just to keep people safe.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then councils and partners need to be able to use all their powers and resources to strengthen that village. Our report, which we’ll be presenting this October at Solace Summit, will help leaders to do just that.
Jo Miller, president, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers; and chief executive, Doncaster MBC