Filling in the gaps

By Ann McGauran | 26 January 2021

The pandemic is having a ‘devastating impact’ on children, according to a coalition of child health experts. They are urging for a commission on the virus crisis that would inform a cross-Government mitigation strategy.

This call came as the Government finally launched the major independent review of children’s social care in England promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto.

The Government has said the review is ‘a once-in-a-generation opportunity’ to repair and rebuild a system it says is failing youngsters. Education secretary Gavin Williamson promises a review that will be ‘bold, wide-ranging and will not shy away from exposing problems where they exist’. It will look at early years help, child protection, kinship care and fostering, care homes, and the family support measures need to keep children from having to enter care. It will be chaired by Josh MacAlister, the chief executive of social work charity, Frontline.

What do local government and children’s services experts want the review to prioritise and deliver on, and do they support calls for a commission aimed at averting the deepening impact of COVID-19?

With the Local Government Association (LGA) highlighting a £2bn funding gap in children’s services this year, chair of its children and young people board Cllr Judith Blake told The MJ local authorities should be ‘absolutely at the centre of the review’.

She added that the question of resources and demand for support, along with the need for the inquiry to prioritise listening to the views of young people, will be crucial.

‘We all know that because of the financial situation councils are in, most local authorities are spending around 60% of their budget on social care for both adults and children, so it’s a major issue,’ said Cllr Blake. ‘But the situation we’re most concerned about is that children and young people are being let down because of the pressures on the system. The review will need to look at the fundamental areas around funding and the sheer pressure that is on funding and the impact this is having on [the] decisions that are made.’

She also called for emphasis on reducing the need for children and young people to go into care and said the LGA ‘absolutely is of the view that there should not be space for profit in the provision of placements for young people’.

What does the inquiry need to address? Jenny Coles is current president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), and director of children’s services at Hertfordshire CC. She said: ‘The first is the sufficiency of good homes for children in care, both for fostering and in the residential area. Part of that is addressing provision, particularly in residential care, and particularly in the private arena, which gives us cause for concern in terms of investment, quality and training of that residential workforce. This is an area that needs some immediate attention.’

She described the inquiry as ‘timely’, but said the chair would need to ensure it had a timeline ‘that doesn’t go on for three or four years.

‘It needs to look at the whole system of support and the child’s journey, but isn’t so broad that you end up not getting anything done.’

Charlotte Ramsden is strategic director of people at Salford City Council. She told The MJ: ‘We welcome the fact that it’s wide [ranging], and that it’s going to be whole-system, because being whole-system is a crucial part of Salford’s way of working, and we are totally inter-related in terms of our shared priorities across our partners – health, police, ourselves, but also education and the voluntary sector.’

She believes it is crucial the review ‘looks not just at what’s going wrong, but what’s going right – for us, that’s really critical.

‘England is blatantly not a failing children’s service,’ she continued. ‘There are places where children’s services are struggling and areas of practice where we need to learn and do better. But in the main, and when you compare us overall with what’s going on internationally and so on, we’ve got some really good things going on. So we are really keen from a Salford perspective that the good things are drawn out and recognised in terms of radical ways to work, including, for example, avoiding repeat removal of babies, and our relationship-based practice which is helping children to stay safely in their own homes. That feels really important.’

Donna Molloy is director of policy and practice at the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF). She said the EIF ‘really welcomes the review and the inclusion in the terms of reference of targeted support for children and families who are outside of the actual social care system’

She added: ‘We think that broader lens for the review is really important. This is because we would argue we need to look again at how we make sure high quality support is available to children and families. We spend about £9bn or £10bn a year on children’s social care, and we need to look again at whether we are spending this money as effectively as possible.’

Ms Molloy also hopes the review will ‘look at how we can start to fill some of the crucial gaps in the evidence that we have in the UK about how best to support families with certain sorts of problems that are at risk of ending up in the children’s social care system’. These issues include neglect, domestic abuse, parental substance misuse, and so on. She points to a lack of well-evaluated UK interventions on which local areas can draw.

All welcomed the call for an independent commission into the impact of the pandemic on children.

In September, the LGA published its own document outlining its ambitions for a child-centred recovery, calling for ‘a cross-Whitehall strategy that puts children and young people at the heart of recovery’. The other immediate priorities were for investment in local safety nets and the universal and early health services, and dedicated action to prevent the attainment gap from widening.

Cllr Blake said: ‘If an independent commission is put together we would very much want to have a voice on that, making sure it’s rooted in local provision, so that we can make sure the best interests of children and young people in our care in our communities are at the centre of that. I would say that anything done in this space has to take a really holistic approach.’

Ms Ramsden said the Government had ‘put a lot of money into children’s mental health, but there is far, far more to do.

‘There is so much long-term damage that will need to be resolved. So we really welcome the call for that commission to happen.’

In conclusion, Ms Molloy of the EIF said a cross-government plan ‘to respond to this unprecedented emergency and try to minimise the effects on children is not there at the moment, so if a commission could fulfil that role then that feels like exactly the right thing right now’.

She added: ‘It’s important the Government stops relying on short-term single-issue funding streams and has all departments signed up and playing their role in a long-term strategic plan to put the support and infrastructure in place to reduce the impact of what has happened to a generation of children.’

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Childrens services Whitehall ADCS LGA Early intervention Coronavirus