Fulfilling a crucial role for children

By Ann McGauran | 27 November 2023

The sector lined up ahead of the Autumn Statement to clamour for more money to address market challenges and spiking demand in children’s social care.

But no cash was on offer. Indeed, the word ‘children’ did not get a look-in during the chancellor’s speech despite a hard-hitting submission to the Treasury from the Local Government Association (LGA) ahead of last week’s set piece.

Responding, the LGA said it was ‘hugely disappointing’ the Government had ‘failed to provide funding needed to protect the services the people in our communities rely on every day’ and pointed out there are ‘now more than 80,000 looked-after children in England’.

Children’s services was highlighted in its submission as one of the key individual service areas with ‘specific cost and demand dynamics that are exerting markedly higher cost pressures’. Budgeted spend on children’s social care increased by £1.5bn (13.6%) in 2023-24. This, it said, is a continuation of a trend of spiralling costs ‘driven partly by continuous growth in the number of children in care since 2009’.

Directors of children’s services (DCS) gathered this week at the National Children and Adult Services Conference in Bournemouth are dealing with a hugely adverse funding environment.

President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) John Pearce lambasted the Treasury last week for failing to ‘address the significant funding challenges facing local government and children’s services who are crumbling under the pressure of more than a decade of austerity, rising demand for help and support and inflation’.

While he said councils have worked hard to protect children’s services budgets, ‘a growing proportion of funding is going on child protection and balancing budgets rather than offers of earlier help and support in the community, because by law we must spend on statutory services’. This ‘vicious cycle’ is ‘only storing up bigger costs further down the line’, he added.

Is being a DCS the most challenging role in local government? Chris Munday is chair of the ADCS Resources and Sustainability Policy Committee and executive director for children and family services at Barnet LBC. He told The MJ that despite the considerable difficulties, the role is actually ‘an ‘enjoyable and fulfilling one’.

He highlighted one example of the joyful and fulfilling elements of the job: ‘I arrived this morning and there was a parcel on my desk from a child who has special educational needs. He wanted to write to me to tell me about the new place he’s going to and he drew me a picture.’

Referencing an article in The MJ (2 November 2023) in which the state of the children’s care system was described by one interviewee as ‘absolute carnage... after years of funds being withdrawn’, he said: ‘It’s not something I recognise.’

He added: ‘What I recognise are professionals working hugely hard to keep children safe, to ensure they’re educated, to ensure they are supported and can flourish. That’s not to say there aren’t challenges.’

Chief operating officer of Mutual Ventures, Emmet Regan, said: ‘I think being a DCS is the most challenging job in local government in terms of both the pressure and the focus on a DCS.

‘I think there’s something about burnout, too. The things you need to be able to do are miles away from the fundamentals of social care. You are basically running a £50m business.’ Given the scale of the demands, he asked ‘is the centre doing enough to support DCSs?’

He said the pressures on DCSs need to be set out in ‘two buckets’. One contains ‘the macro stuff that’s happening in the country’.

‘If you speak to any DCS, some of the drivers are around the cost of living, around poverty, around benefits: the issue is not that people set out to hurt their children – but a lot of the issues are steeped in deprivation. And much of what DCSs will tell you is the work they are doing is around those who are really struggling.

‘For me it’s very much about the context DCSs are now operating in. Children’s services are becoming a public service of last resort for families who are really struggling, really on the edge.’

Then there are the structural and organisational micro challenges. ‘So, ultimately, your job as a DCS is to manage demand as effectively as you can – but on the basis that you have reducing budgets and increasing complexity. So your ability to manage that demand is like trying to fight a battle with three hands tied behind your back. You don’t control your front door.’

Cllr Abi Brown is chair of the LGA’s Improvement and Innovation Board and was Conservative leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council until May. Asked if there were any ways to deliver progress in the short-term, she said: ‘We’ve seen over recent months a series of councils announce small-scale investment in in-house provision [of care placements]. I think that’s always to be applauded, but it can be challenging sometimes as a politician to work through doing that.

‘If the only secure beds available are being run by the private sector they’re going to cost a lot. Whereas if clusters of local authorities are empowered to do this themselves,that is going to help.’

Returning to Mr Munday, he said the ‘bottom line’ is the need for ‘a system that’s properly funded’. Director of local government finance at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Nico Heslop said last week the sector could expect an ‘above inflation’ local government finance settlement this year. That would be unlikely to deliver anything more than a drop of rain to the country’s parched children’s services.

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Autumn Statement ADCS LGA Funding Poverty DLUHC Cost of living