Since the birth of my daughter last year, I have benefited enormously from my local children’s centre: from its breastfeeding support group to its jaundice clinic. It is hard to imagine now how I would have coped without it. Yet, with Sure Start children’s centres closing and other more preventative services being withdrawn from the community, families are increasingly isolated, unable to get help early before problems escalate.
At the same time, children’s services teams have been operating on high alert following several high-profile cases, resulting in a risk-averse culture, often at the expense of improving outcomes for the children and families. Instead of reducing demand, this approach has led to more and more children in the care of the local authority. As of March 2018, there were 75,420 looked after children in England – an increase of four per cent from the year before. Meanwhile, councils are having to meet this rising demand with diminishing funding and resources. The funding gap for children’s services is expected to rise to £3.1 billion by 2025.
But the significant challenge facing children’s services cannot be solved simply by pumping more money into the system. The sector needs a total renewal, and this will take some serious soul searching.
That is why our new report From Tiny Acorns: Communities shaping the future of children’s services argues for a new community-led model—shifting the focus of children’s services to prevention. Instead of seeing children and families as passive users of services, this new approach seeks to tackle the immense challenge by growing the community’s capability and maximising local assets.
The answer lies in the community. Drawing from our vision for the public sector, The Community Paradigm, and emerging examples from this research, three principles should form the basis for this new approach:
- Tapping into the latent potential of communities is more pressing than ever given the dual challenge of rising demand and funding cuts. Only by mobilising community assets can we turn a culture of scarcity into abundance. Important steps are being taken in Hartlepool where parents are being upskilled and supported to provide critical preventative services, for example through parenting courses to benefit other local parents.
- Engaging the community meaningfully is a crucial part of prevention and early intervention. Trusting relationships, which must be nurtured, facilitate the early and accurate identification of need. Through the Connected Communities Work programme in Whitehaven, for instance, engaging children in identifying local needs has enabled them to contribute to designing the necessary preventative programme for their area.
- As partnership working becomes the new normal, the community should be supported to make crucial decisions based on their detailed local knowledge. Some positive outcomes have been reported in Leeds, where community teams were trusted to make spending decisions on the most appropriate universal services for their area.
These examples provide just a preview into what the future of children’s services could look like if we truly focus on growing a community’s capability. But to fully maximise this momentum for change at the local level will require the government to go beyond simply recognising local potential and characteristics, and re-frame national policy to support community-led initiatives around prevention.
Pawda Tjoa is senior policy researcher at the New Local Government Network (NLGN)