It is the service that is generating more concern among council leaders and others than almost anything else.
Deemed important - but not important enough to be protected from cuts since 2010 - children’s social care is buckling under the pressure of increased demand.
Figures compiled by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on behalf of Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, show that, yes, councils are spending money on children at risk, with substantially more being taken into care.
But this is often at the expense of preventative work and other services that, if better funded, might reduce costs later when children are in more serious trouble.
According to the IfS, nearly half (47%) of the £8.6bn spent on children’s services in England in 2016/17 was spent on just under 73,000 children who were placed in care. If wider spending on families in severe need is included, 72% of total spending is accounted for by reactive, rather than preventative, work.
According to Longfield, local authorities and other agencies are attempting to contain a crisis in the lives of children after allowing the problem to escalate. 'Children do not arrive in extreme need overnight,' she says. 'Many could be prevented from getting to that point if we helped them sooner.'
The number of looked after children with care orders has risen steadily this decade. Department for Education figures show there were 72,670 looked after children in England in March 2017, up 3% on the previous year. Figures for 2018 are due to be published in November.
But a recent inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children concluded that children’s social care is something of a postcode lottery, with some local authorities stepping in sooner than others after deciding that a child is at risk.
The APPG’s report Storing Up Trouble, published in conjunction with the National Children’s Bureau, says that, in many local authorities, cases are not taken on until families reach more complex levels of need.
Seventy per cent of social workers told the inquiry the threshold for helping children in need has risen during the past three years while half said the point at which a child protection plan is triggered has gone up.
MP Tim Loughton, chair of the group and a former children’s minister, says children are not being helped as soon as they should because resources are stretched. 'The culture of intervention has moved from one of preventative, early intervention, to [one of] "at risk",' he says.
Among the group’s recommendations is a legal duty on local authorities to provide earlier support for children, young people and families. 'Early help has largely gone out of the window,' adds Loughton.
An early intervention duty was a key recommendation in the Munro review of child protection in 2011. But with the coalition government keen to reduce statutory duties on councils, it was rejected at a time when Loughton was a minister at the DfE.
Matt Dodd, head of policy and public affairs at the NCB, says councils are caught up in a 'vicious cycle' where money is increasingly spent on children and families with more complex needs. 'Investing in services like early help prevents children’s needs from progressing to the more complex end,' he says.
Organisations such as the NCB are lobbying the Treasury to earmark more money for child social care in the next comprehensive spending review, due before the end of 2019. Cuts in spending on social care, they say, have a knock-on effect on other public services and increase child poverty. 'Children’s lives don’t sit in neat service boundaries,' says Dodd.
There are also concerns about the quality of local authority children’s services. A recent report by the Social Market Foundation found that just over 47,000 children (65% of all looked-after children) are in the 63% of councils in England that, say Ofsted, require improvement or are inadequate.
Of these, 13,790 children are in councils that were judged inadequate. 'Children desperately need the people who are supposed to lead this country to pay more attention and commit to improving children’s lives,' says Matthew Oakley, a senior researcher at the SMF.
Rachel Dickinson, director of children’s services in Barnsley, says demand has risen for many reasons, including poverty and austerity. Some schools, including academy chains, are less tolerant of misbehaviour and so more likely to exclude children, who then require local authority support.
Any legal duty on councils to intervene sooner would need to be properly funded and even then, she says, there would be disagreements on how money was spent. 'If a local authority has to save money, it’s not going to stop services for the most vulnerable people,' says Dickinson, vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. 'It’s going to stop services at the preventative end.'
An ongoing study by the National Audit Office, due for publication this autumn, is examining how effectively councils manage demand for children’s services, including the support they receive from central government.
Two years ago, a NAO report concluded that children’s services were not up to scratch in many parts of England and called on the DfE to 'inject more energy, pace and determination' into delivering its responsibilities. The DfE is also in the throes of carrying out a review of children in need, announced in March.
According to Loughton, effective children’s services are not solely about funding. 'It’s partly down to money but it’s also down to different approaches,' he says. In August, North Yorkshire became the first council to gain outstanding for every category of the new Ofsted inspection framework for social care, introduced in January.
But in a decade that has seen closure of hundreds of Sure Start centres, it remains to be seen whether politicians will ever see children’s services as a priority in the same way as they do adult social care.
Loughton bemoans the absence in government of anyone to champion children’s services, adding that neither the Prime Minister nor the Number 10 Policy Unit are especially interested. 'The Treasury has never really got early intervention,' he adds. 'Making a spend to save case is always difficult.'