The Department for Education has failed to adequately evaluate evidence on what is driving both increasing demand for children’s social care services and variations in councils’ activity and spending in this area, the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.
A report published today says the DfE did not until recently consider the assessment of demand on children’s social care as a “fundamental part of its responsibilities” and therefore does not fully understand pressures which has led 91% of councils to overspend on their children’s social care budgets in 2017-18.
The NAO found referrals to children’s social care rose slightly more than child population growth of 5.2% between 2010-11 and 2017-18, with a 7% increase. The numbers of children classified as ‘in need’ rose by 2% over the period.
However, children requiring a section 47 assessment, when there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, increased by 77% and the volume of child protection plans increased by 26%.
The rise in the number of looked after children was triple population growth at 15%, while there was a 78% increase in looked after children aged 16 or over, who are associated with higher costs.
The report says this rise in demand and activity could be due to three factors. These are changes in the way councils deal with issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health; changes to the ’public law outline’ and deprivation.
The ‘public law outline’, which sets out councils’ duties when considering an application for a care order and has resulted in more cases going before the family courts.
The NAO highlighted significant differences in children’s social care activity and costs across councils.
The level of ‘children in need’ cases in 2017-18 ranged from 301 to 1,323 per 10,000 of the child population in local authority areas. The variation in annual spend per child ranged from £566 to £5,166 per year.
The NAO also found no link between spending per child and Ofsted ratings, with some councils rated ‘good’ by Ofsted spending of £570 per child in need while others with the same rating spent £4,980.
The report adds: “Ofsted ratings for children’s social care services are not correlated in any way with changing levels of child protection plans and do not provide any indication of the likelihood that authorities will be able to reduce the numbers of looked-after children, on which most money is spent.
“This demonstrates the challenge for the [DfE] in combining different sources of information to guide decision-making.”
A NAO report in 2016 found DfE should do more to improve children’s social care. The following year the government commissioned research into what is driving need, which is due to report in the summer.
Head of the NAO Amyas Morse said: “Since then the department has adopted the target of giving all vulnerable children access to high quality support, no matter where they live, by 2022.
“The department has started to build its understanding of variations in services, but it should know more than it does. Even with this understanding, the department faces a tall order to achieve its goal within three years.”
NAO’s modelling using levels of child protection plans identified “wide-ranging characteristics” of council areas, including children’s social care practice, market conditions and attributes of children and their families, that account for 44% of the variation in levels of child protection plans. A further 15% can be attributed to deprivation levels, 10% by national policy changes and 6% by levels of spending on children’s social care and the levels of social worker vacancies.
The remaining 25% is not explained by the model.
Responding to the report, Stuart Gallimore, president of the Association of Directors of Children Services, said drivers of demand such as rising child poverty, deprivation and the increasing prevalence of domestic abuse, substance misuse and poor parental mental health are not within councils’ “gift to influence”.
He added: “Only changes to national policy and a prioritisation of children and families can turn the tide on demand for children’s services.
“A national child poverty reduction strategy would be a good starting point – England is the only country in the UK without one. Similarly, one off, time limited funding pots that local authorities must bid for are not the solution.
“This favoured approach is neither a sustainable nor an equitable solution. Funding should always be tied to need not the quality of a bid.”