A nine-fold variation in spending on children’s social care could largely be down to ‘differences in characteristics’ between councils, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) study.
The NAO report found that around 44% of the spending variation between councils could be explained by local characteristics such as custom and practice, local market conditions and historical patterns of demand.
It suggested that deprivation might explain another 15% and national policy changes or ‘shocks’ – such as the high profile death of a child – 10%.
Geography was not found to be an influence.
Around a quarter of the variation was unaccounted for by the factors identified by the NAO study.
The NAO found no link between a council’s spending and its Ofsted rating, with spending by services rated ‘good’ ranging from £570 per head to nearly £5,000.
With the number of child protection assessments having surged by 77% in seven years and many children’s services departments grappling with overspends, head of the NAO, Amyas Morse, questioned whether the Government would be able to meet its 2022 target of ensuring all vulnerable children received good support regardless of where they live.
Sir Amyas said: ‘The Department [for Education] 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.’
The NAO report urged the department ‘to promptly improve’ its understanding of children’s social care.
Chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, said: ‘There is no right amount for councils to spend on children’s services and, as our own research has found, the majority of spend variation is due to wider economic or geographic circumstances largely outside their control.’
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) warned that cuts to preventive services have generated expensive spending downstream – despite the study finding no link between Sure Start closures and a rise in child protection cases.