DfE fails to understand what drives demand for children's social care

NAO says DfE does not fully understand what is causing increases in demand across all local authorities

Published on 29th January 2019

The Department for Education has been accused of failing to understand what is driving demand for children's social care.

A report published by the National Audit Office states that the Department for Education does not fully understand what is causing increases in demand across all local authorities and, until recently, it did not consider this a fundamental part of its responsibilities.  

Head of the NAO Amyas Morse said: “Over two years ago we reported that the Department for Education’s progress in improving children’s services was not up to scratch. 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.”

Furthermore, the Department does not understand why there is such wide variation between local authorities in their children’s social care activity and costs, as it has not yet done the work to tie together available sources of information.

The report highlights that in 2017-18, 655,630 children were referred to local authorities because of concerns about their welfare, representing a rise of 7% since 2010-11.  However local authorities carried out 77% more child protection assessments and the reasons for this disproportionate increase in assessments compared with referrals are unknown.

Cases of children being taken into care have risen by 15% since 2010-11 – more than double the rate of population growth. Local authorities expect to spend £4.2 billion on children in care in 2018-19, which is £350 million more than they budgeted for in 2017-18. There has been an increase in the use of residential care, but local authorities often lack suitable placements. Only 32% said they have access to enough residential homes for children aged 14 to 15 years, and 41% for those aged 16 to 17.

The Department for Education has previously estimated that 41% of the increase in the number of children in need between 2009-10 and 2016-17 was due to population growth, however, it had not quantified the contribution of other causes to almost 60% of the increase, the report states.

In addition, the activity and cost of children’s services vary significantly between different local authorities. The rate of children in need episodes ranges from 301 to 1,323 per 10,000 children and the amount local authorities spend on children’s social care ranges from £566 to £5,166 per child per year across different local authorities.

The NAO’s analysis suggests that local authority characteristics may account for 44% of the variation between different local authorities over time in how they respond to demand for children’s services. Different levels of deprivation could explain 15% of the variation between local authorities and a further 10% of this variation may be accounted for by changes which affect all local authorities equally at the same time, such as the introduction of a new policy. The relevant characteristics of local authorities and their areas will include custom and practice in children’s social care, local market conditions, and historical patterns of demand.

There was no evidence of correlation between local authorities' spending per child in need and the quality of services provided. For example, some services rated as 'good' by Ofsted spend £570 per head with others spending £4,980. Similarly, there is no correlation between Ofsted ratings and changing numbers of child protection plans

Local authorities’ spending power has reduced by 28.6% since 2010. As a result there has been a reduction in spending on non-statutory preventative children’s services, including children’s centres, and increasing spending on statutory social work. For example, the number of Sure Start children’s centres has fallen by just over 500 since 2010. Local authorities which have closed children’s centres have not had any consequential increases in child protection plans.

The NAO report urges the Department to promptly improve its understanding of children’s social care and build on the NAO’s own research and modelling to help it explain demand and local variations and improve the effectiveness of its decisions.

Pressures on children's social care

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