Children’s services: leaving crisis management behind

By Martin Ford | 20 April 2022

With the National Audit Office’s investigation into the state of children’s services due later this year, it recently held a round table with The MJ bringing together sector senior leadership figures to debate issues including a flawed funding system, a workforce crisis and the need to develop an outcome-based approach. Martin Ford reports

M aintaining effective children’s services is increasingly cited as one of the greatest challenges facing local authorities across the country.

While adult social care more frequently grabs headlines and dominates the agenda of central government, both soaring demand for support and the costs of provision for children and young people continues to grow unabated.

Due to report in October, the National Audit Office (NAO) investigation will look at what is driving demand and increasing costs, the key components and partners in the system, and which parts of it are working – and which are not.

To help the NAO get an insight into the system from the perspective of local government, The MJ convened a round table of senior leadership figures within the sector for a discussion under Chatham House rules.

Children’s services were particularly impacted in the past two years by the pandemic and successive national lockdowns.

While one of the attendees said that issues had been ‘exacerbated by COVID’, in which ‘we were all on a horrible journey of discovery’, others said the impact of the pandemic still lingered.

‘We have seen a significant increase in children missing from education,’ said one delegate, while another estimated ‘we are seeing 10% less attendance in school’ following the growth of home schooling, meaning less oversight of children who may be at risk.

They added: ‘Colleagues haven’t been able to have eyes on children.’

The pressures of the pandemic had also contributed to a rise in mental health issues, leading to increased incidents of anti-social behaviour, the delegates reported.

‘Many of us hoped after COVID things would have moved on,’ said one of the delegates.

Yet all too familiar pressures from before the pandemic have persisted and even worsened.

Those present recognised the high and growing proportion of pupils in schools with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). One delegate spoke of education, health and care plans increasing by more than 75% over the past five years alone.

The levels of demand were driving up costs to the level of ‘eye-watering numbers’, they added.

The attendee said they had seen providers charging fees as high as £2,500 per week for accommodation that consisted of little more than a caravan.

‘And this is all funded from the public purse,’ they added. ‘If you are in private equity, this is the best place to put your money.

‘The funding system for local government isn’t fit for purpose.’

Around the table a feeling was shared that the constant footing of crisis management was hindering efforts to improve services.

‘We need to reframe it from managing demand to getting the best results for a child,’ said one of the attendees.

A second added: ‘We don’t have a mechanism for quantifying need and developing an outcome-based approach. They can and do exist.

‘In some places we resist that outcome-based analysis.’

This was all having an impact on management burnout, with the two-year average tenure of a children’s services director being highlighted.

Furthermore, there was universal agreement around the table that the sector was going through a current crisis in recruiting and retaining social care workers at all levels.

‘We have got enormous issues around recruitment and retention, competition for talent,’ one attendee said, despite efforts to ‘try to be good to each other’.

But another added: ‘As soon as there’s a whiff of intervention, it’s backs to the wall, undermining each other’s efforts.’

One of the delegates was insistent that the way the sector is regulated was making the recruitment issue worse.

‘Negative, reactive regulation is exacerbating the biggest problem we have,’ they said.

‘It’s driven by the regulatory system and absence of terms and conditions for staff.’

The regulatory system as a whole came in for much criticism from delegates, who argued it was failing to improve the standard of services and in fact stymied innovation.

‘We are often hyper-observed locally,’ said one of the attendees.

One delegate described the ‘frenzied’ response in some authorities when stories about child protection scandals break, resulting in them questioning ‘can it happen here – is it happening here?

They added: ‘The narrative is punitive, and it’s deeply unhelpful.

‘There’s a deliberate undermining of the system that shouldn’t be allowed in any country.’

Another said: ‘The regulatory system drives so much risk aversion and so much cost, it constrains rather than enables a local authority to improve.’

A third added: ‘Every time you look at Government intervention it’s completely different.’

There was concern among the attendees that Whitehall did not fully appreciate the challenges facing the sector and failed to seek its input when making changes, despite being in need of an overhaul.

‘Government has to change the nature of its relationship with local government,’ one said.

‘Local authority insights needs to be at the outset of policy development.

‘We have to develop policy that is deliverable – we see it time and again and it fails.

‘Civil servants take direction from the Treasury or Cabinet Office and the chance of success is reduced immeasurably.’

There was agreement from a fellow attendee. They added: ‘We have got to stop doing these little projects and pots of money. This is a holistic issue.

‘They have got to co-produce and not just send out surveys.’

For others, there were issues with the Department for Education lacking ‘any idea about the complexity’ of the issues facing the sector.

Another delegate said: ‘You get a Government that talks about prevention, working with families upstream, but it’s a dysfunctional system.’

They said it had to get to grips with fair funding and the regulatory system: ‘If the Government was brave and serious about this, it would look at those two issues.’

One said the key was to abandon the current ‘piecemeal, scattergun approach’.

They added: ‘What’s missing is a very coherent view and philosophy of what we are doing to achieve for children.’

Another of the attendees said that the key to improving the system as a whole was to take a place-based approach.

‘It never feels like those factors are taken into account when it comes to children – the context in which we are operating.

‘The police system is not great about making those connections.

‘I don’t think the Government has a joined-up vision for how this should operate.

‘We need a national conversation about developing support for system change.’

Other delegates had experienced similar issues when working alongside partners with children and young people in the community.

They said: ‘The police are struggling to join the dots in offender management. We spend a lot of time reminding colleagues about their other responsibilities.’

There were also future challenges on the horizon foreseen by the delegates.

The cost of living crisis was highlighted as a particular concern in areas of deprivation already ravaged by the COVID pandemic.

‘There’s a real risk of an explosion in demand, said one delegate. ‘During COVID it was far easier for people to stockpile cash. Poor communities throughout that period have had far less to buffer themselves against what’s coming.’

The advent of Integrated Care Systems (ICS), currently awaiting a statutory footing from Westminster, was also seen as a possible complication due to the exclusion of services for children from the new arrangements, which focuses on adult social care.

‘Children’s social care isn’t recognised as a part of that change,’ said one of the delegates.

‘Clinical commissioning groups provided a lot of support on a discretionary basis – there’s a lack of recognition of that enormous change.’

They added: ‘Adult social care has a noisy voice.’

The discussion also turned to the growing acknowledgement of harnessing data as a useful tool, although one delegate said data issues ‘are very difficult to break through’.

NAO Round table participants

  • Steven Broomhead – interim chief executive, Warrington Council
  • Martin Cresswell – chief executive, Impower
  • Heather Jameson – editor, The MJ
  • Ashley McDougall – director of local service delivery value for money, NAO
  • Tom Stannard – chief executive, Salford City Council
  • Chloe Taylor – assistant director, skills and enterprise, Wigan MBC
  • Philip Taylor – audit manager, NAO
  • Jonathan Tew – chief executive, South Tyneside MBC
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