The latest report from the National Audit Office – Pressures on children’s social care – correctly identifies that urgent action needs to be taken by the Department for Education to better understand and help local authorities fulfil their duties to vulnerable children.
91% of local authorities are now overspending on children’s services; this reflects a national funding crisis which requires national solutions. Local authorities alone are unable to ‘innovate’ themselves out of a growing pressure on their services in the face of extensive budget cuts. Early identification and intervention for vulnerable children and families is crucial to prevent problems escalating. These are exactly the services which have been hardest hit, leading to an increased number of children coming into care.
It is also clear that current capacity within the system is insufficient to meet demand, particularly for older children within the residential sector. All children in care deserve to be involved in decisions about where they live, not have their lives determined by a commissioning marketplace which fails to address their wishes and requirements. Inappropriate placement choices only contribute to future disruption and instability.
However, we are concerned to see children in care again labelled as a cost to reduce, with any variation in spending taken as an inevitable cause for concern. Behind every figure in this report is an individual child who requires support specific to their needs. We should endeavour to reduce the postcode lottery in available accommodation and support, not fuel a competition between local authorities for providing care at the lowest cost per head.