The Department for Education (DoE) has been slammed by the spending watchdog for a lack of understanding in what is driving demand for children’s social care.
It has been told it must get a grip of why there are large variations in activity and costs in social care provision across the 152 upper-tier local authorities in England.
A National Audit Office report, Pressures on children’s social care, said councils expect to spend £4.2bn on children in care in 2018/19, which is £350m (9.1%) more than they budgeted for in 2017/18.
The report said local authorities’ spending power has reduced by 28.6% since 2010 and that ‘unless adequate and effective children’s social care is in place, children in need of help or protection will be exposed to neglect, abuse or harm.’
Analysis found that in 2017/18, 655,630 children were referred to local authorities because of welfare concerns. Although referrals increased by only 7% between 2010/11 and 2017/18, councils carried out 77% more child protection assessments.
During the seven-year period, the number of children in care rose by 15% to 75,420, more than triple the rate of overall population growth. There was rise in the number of children over 16 taken into care, which grew 78% during the period, from 3,210 to 5,710.
There has been an increase in the use of residential care, but local authorities said they often lacked suitable placements.
The NAO found that only a third (32%) of local authorities had access to enough residential homes for children aged 14 to 15 years, while four in ten said they had adequate provision for people aged 16 to 17.
The rate of episodes ranged from 301 to 1,323 per 10,000 children, while spending was from £566 to £5,166 per child per year. But the report found no link between spending per child. Some services were rated Good by Ofsted spending £570 per head, while others received the same rating paying £4,980.
The NAO said the department did not fully understand what was causing increases in demand across all local authorities and, until recently, it did not consider this a fundamental part of its responsibilities.
The education department, which has overall policy responsibility for children’s services, has a strategic vision that all vulnerable children should have access to high-quality support by 2022.
Amyas Morse (pictured), NAO head, said: ‘Over two years ago we reported that the Department for Education’s progress in improving children’s services was not up to scratch. Since then the department has adopted the target of giving all vulnerable children access to high quality support, no matter where they live, by 2022.
‘The department has started to build its understanding of variations in services, but it should know more than it does. Even with this understanding, the department faces a tall order to achieve its goal within three years.’
Councillor Carl Les, County Councils Network children’s services and education spokesman, said the findings were ‘another illustration of the unsustainable nature of children’s services’. He called on the Government to provide extra money or risk authorities using their reserves.
Stuart Gallimore, Association of Directors of Children’s Services president, said: ‘Only changes to national policy and a prioritisation of children and families can turn the tide on demand for children’s services.’
Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi said: ‘We have raised the bar in children’s social care and the child protection system, so that children at risk are identified sooner, and we are tackling the reasons why children are in need in the first place.
‘As the report acknowledges, we are currently working across government to improve our understanding of demand for children’s services. And we know there are pressures on councils, which is why we are providing an additional £410m in the Budget for adult and children’s social care and an extra £84m to expand innovative practice to support vulnerable families across a further 20 councils.’