DfE urged to "get to grips" with pressures on children's services

Committee says government's progress with reforming children's services is painfully slow

Published on 23rd March 2019

The Department for Education nees to "get to grips" with its understanding of demand pressures on children's services if it is to make a compelling case for adequate resources in the anticipated spending review.

This is the stark message from the Public Accounts Committee which highlights that the children's services sector is not financially sustainable with 91% of local authorities having exceeded their budgets for spending on children's services in 2017-18.

Chair of the committee Meg Hillier said: "Government’s progress with reforming children’s services has been painfully slow and it has still not made clear what sustainable improvements it hopes to achieve. Children, many of them in desperate circumstances, deserve better.

“The Department for Education regards children’s social care as its most important responsibility. If it is to live up to that responsibility, it must first address what are persistent shortcomings in its understanding of the sector," she added.

The committee report warns that it has reported several times in recent years on the poor state of children’s social care, and in 2016 concluded that the Department for Education was "worryingly complacent" that nothing could be done to improve services more quickly.

While the Department seeks to increase its knowledge about demand pressures, it still has not done enough to make the quality or finances of children’s social care sustainable snd the committee said it was "disappointed" that the Department has not set out the sustainable improvement it seeks to achieve for children.

"For the avoidance of doubt, we expect the Department to improve both the quality and the cost-effectiveness of children's social care in measurable ways by its goal of 2022," the report added. It warns that this would require a "step-change" in the Department's understanding of pressures, the reduction of unnecessary variation between areas in their social care activities and the costs of providing them, and greater pace in its work with struggling local authorities.

The PAC warned that the disconnect between the Department for Education making policy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government allocating funding can only be a hindrance to improving services and needs resolving.

The report highlights that:

- The Department cannot explain why there is so much variation between local authorities in the activity and cost of children’s social care.

- The Department does not possess a comprehensive assessment of the sustainability or resource needs of children’s social care services.

- The increasing use, and high cost, of residential care places local authorities under extreme financial pressure.

- There is a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of early interventions in children’s social care.

- The Department has not set out what overall improvement it is seeking in children’s social care by 2022.

- There is little evidence of strong cross-government collaboration in improving children’s social care.

The Committee urges the DfE to produce data on the costs and quality of children’s social care for each local authority in England, which is easily accessible publicly and enables comparison between authorities; the key factors contributing to the variation across local authorities; the action it is taking to reduce variation; and its future targets for limiting the levels of variation between local authorities in cost and quality of children’s social care by December 2019.

The Department should also set out the thresholds it deems acceptable for (i) rate of children in need episodes, and (ii) amount spent per child in need episode by December 2019.

Furthermore, the committee calls for the DfE to decide how it will assess and monitor the cost effectiveness of children’s social care in inspected local authorities and set out what action it has taken to encourage the take-up of good practice in children’s social care across local authorities and how it will assess take-up by September this year.

By December 2019, the Department should set out how it will work with local authorities to manage the supply of high quality and cost-effective residential care and match this to demand. The Department should set out by September 2019 how the What Works Centre will identify cost-effective early interventions and how it will spread this knowledge through its programme of good practice.

The report concludes that the Department should write to the committee setting out the quality of children’s social care it is seeking to achieve by 2022 and how it will measure this.  It should also develop and lead on a cross-government strategy for raising quality in children’s social care, with a cross-government approach agreed by December 2019.

Meg Hillier added: "The Department still cannot explain the significant variation between local authorities in the activity and cost of children’s social care, nor does it have an adequate understanding of demand pressures.

“It will need to rapidly acquire that understanding if it is to make a convincing case for funding to the Treasury. But beyond that, it must show leadership in government.

“Woolly ambitions are not enough to deliver lasting change. The Department must drive cross-departmental work that will enable the government to properly meet the needs of vulnerable children," she concluded.

Stuart Gallimore, ADCS President, said: “Local authorities are committed to improving children’s lives and outcomes but there is simply not enough money in the system to meet the increasing level of need in our communities. No one can underestimate how hard we have worked to make savings but this has been at the expense of the very services that are designed to prevent children and families’ needs from escalating and reduce future demand. Despite the significant financial and demand pressures we face Ofsted’s latest annual report acknowledges an improving picture in the quality and overall effectiveness of children’s services across the country.

“Some level of variation in levels of demand, activity and spend between local authorities is to be expected and this is driven by factors largely out of our control but central government can, and must, make a difference by tackling the wider social determinants that fuel demand, such as deprivation and the prevalence of domestic abuse, parental substance misuse and poor mental health. A child poverty reduction strategy would be a good place to start. The issue of variability should not be used to suggest there is scope for more efficiencies because there is not. Even high performing, well-run, low spending councils, like my own, simply have nowhere left to go. Collectively, children’s services overspent by more than £800 million in the last financial year and face a funding gap of £3 billion by 2025, just to stand still. It is crucial that a compelling case is made for our services to be properly resourced ahead of the Spending Review and we would be happy to work with the DfE on this on behalf of children. Children’s services urgently need to be put on a sustainable financial footing, or I worry about the nature and type of services we will be able to provide to vulnerable children and their families," he added.

Transforming children's services

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