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LGC Column: Priorities for a new government

As the klaxon sounds on a long anticipated general election, there will be a clamour from many sectors and organisations setting out their priorities and calling for much needed additional funding. Within local government, there are a number of areas that require urgent attention to reverse the worrying financial state of councils up and down the country and this is no different for children’s services. However, whilst funding runs central to a lot of the difficulties we face, there are several other measures a newly formed government could take straight away.

Earlier this year, ADCS published a new policy paper, Childhood Matters which provides the perfect summary for any incoming government of the challenges facing children and the public services that support them. The paper calls for a comprehensive vision and plan for childhood accompanied by a long term, sustainable funding settlement, but it also puts forward tangible solutions for change aimed at each government department with a stake in child and family policy. Beyond the Department for Education; the Treasury, Home Office, Cabinet Office and other departments (nine in total) each make policies that directly impact on children and families’ lives, yet children’s distinct needs and rights are not well understood by departments with wider portfolios. Despite multiple reviews and government white papers being published over recent years that correctly diagnose some of the problems, the resulting recommendations are often only partially implemented, if at all.

If you speak to any Director of Children’s Services across the country, I have no doubt that high up their list of concerns will be pressures in the SEND system. Last year, the government published its SEND and AP improvement plan which sets out reforms to improve the system and make it work better for children, families and local authorities. ADCS has been clear that the system needs a reset to strengthen accountabilities across our partners as well as reduce the insurmountable costs we are seeing. The plan appeared promising when published, but it is now quite clear that it fails to address the systemic issues that have resulted in high needs deficits threatening the financial sustainability of local authorities. When Parliament next sits after the election, one of the main priorities of the sitting government must be to re-balance our mainstream school system in favour of inclusion. Without this, policy will just continue to tinker around the edges, and we will not see meaningful, lasting reform.

Another area of priority focus must be the children’s social care system which is also in the midst of a national reform programme as set out in ‘Stable homes, built on love’. The government’s plan rightly includes a focus on strengthening early help services, or ‘family help’ so that children and families receive a continuity of support throughout their journey with children’s services. This signals a welcome shift in approach, but it doesn’t address the underlying reason for why local authority early help services have been eroded in the first place. Over a decade of austerity has forced us to make difficult decisions, prioritising statutory services that support children and young people far later. Consequently, the services most at risk are those addressing the root causes of problems children and their families face before they reach crisis point. Any government could quickly address this by providing local authorities with an equitable long-term funding settlement that invests in children’s services in the round. Such a move would inevitably reduce pressure on more costly services, but more importantly it would improve the lives of countless children and families.

Finally, but not less important, is the urgent need to address the shameful levels of profiteering in children’s services from some of the largest private providers of care. Not only is it morally wrong to profit from our children in care, the high risk financial structures in which private equity firms operate are far from stable. ADCS is clear that public money should be spent on improving the care of children and not on provider shareholder dividends. There should be a set of national rules to ensure the system is reset in favour of children's best interests, not maximising profits.

Any incoming government must prioritise making this a country that works for all children. Local government can be transformative when at its best, but there is much out of our control such as growing levels of child poverty. We need a national government that is just as committed as we are to making change and putting children first.

Andy Smith ADCS President 2024/25

This column first appeared in the LGC in June 2024.

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