With the interim Budget announcements due on 8 July and further reductions expected in the autumn spending review, I want to highlight two financial challenges faced by children’s services – and an opportunity.
First, there is a growing funding shortfall across children’s services. Local authorities have faced increased demand for children’s social care alongside severely constrained funding since November 2008. They have responded creatively by reducing costs and remodelling provision such as early help and youth services, but there’s a looming gap.
Last year the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Safeguarding Pressures Phase 4 research showed that activity across the system was continuing to rise, and this trend continues. While it’s notoriously difficult to estimate the funding gap, it’s vital that planned spending for children’s services is based on the twin realities that both demand and demographic pressures, from rising numbers of children particularly in areas of deprivation, will continue to grow.
When local budgets are under pressure, we also worry that the non-statutory parts of the system are more vulnerable to spending cuts, reducing capacity in the system for early intervention. This concern is now amplified by the loss of public health funding which can only exacerbate these risks.
Second, it is not just the funding of services that causes problems, but also the way the available money is distributed. An example is the current disjointed system for distributing schools capital, with separate allocations for rebuilding schools, school maintenance and new school places, allocated through a plethora of central and local programmes.
The independent James Review said that the Department for Education “should avoid multiple funding streams for investment…and instead apportion the available capital as a single, flexible budget for each local area”.
We agree and urge that the creation of new school places, including the future sites of free schools, should be in conjunction with local authorities. We must ensure that new school places are provided where they are needed to make the best use of public money.
Then, there’s the opportunity. Wherever there is new money, for example for children’s mental health services, it’s critical that we make the best use of this resource across the wider system. We must work to ensure we squeeze every benefit from limited funds and find innovative ways of doing more for less.
So, we need to be honest about pressures and factor these in to spending plans responsibly; we must make sure that we collaborate well between local and central government, and we need the freedom to be creative and find local solutions, joining up effort across the wider system. We all owe it to the children we serve to get the best from the limited money we have.
Alison O’Sullivan, president, ADCS, and director of children’s services, Kirklees Metropolitan Council