Early help services under threat from referral spike

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

Local authorities are diverting money away from crucial early intervention services in order to cope with the rising number of referrals for urgent child protection support. Pete Henshaw reports

Four in 10 councils have warned that they are likely to cut early help services in response to increasing pressure from rising child protection referrals and assessments

The issue has been raised by the Local Government Association (LGA) after a survey of 76 councils – half of the 152 in England – found that domestic violence, drug abuse, family hardship and conflict are behind the increase in referrals.

A majority of the 76 councils said that poor housing and debt are also leading to more referrals.

The councils said that the main pressure on their social care budgets in 2019/20 was the “increased complexity of need”, including problems posed by an increase in older children being referred.

Four in 10 of the councils warned that they would be “fairly or very likely” to reduce early help services in 2019/20. This includes cutting children’s centres, the closure of the Troubled Families programme and staff cuts. Troubled Families is a programme of targeted intervention for families with multiple problems, including crime, anti-social behaviour, truancy, unemployment, mental health problems and domestic abuse. However, funding is due to end in 2020.

One council’s lead member of children services, quoted in the LGA’s survey report, said: “Our early help hubs (locality teams) are funded from the original Troubled Families budget and this is due to go in 2020. We have a £4 million budget gap for children’s centres from 2020 that we will need to address. SEND provision is reducing as schools in particular cut staff.”

Another added: “Children’s Centres cut. No youth services. Less help for families. All statutory duties delivered using lowest common denominator.”

Department for Education statistics published last week (DfE, 2019) show how the number of referrals to social services has risen from 593,500 in 2012/13 to 650,900 in 2018/19 – although there has been a slight decrease in the past year. These referrals came mainly from the police (29 per cent), schools (18 per cent) and health services (15 per cent).

Mirroring the rise in referrals, the figures show that the number of assessments completed by local authorities has increased from 550,800 in 2014/15 to 644,700 in 2018/19.

The number of children classified as “in need” has also risen, although the proportion per 1,000 has remained steady. For every 1,000 young people aged under-18, 33.4 were “in need” as of March 2019 (this equates to 399,500 young people) compared to 34.1 in 2010 (375,900).

The DfE figures show that the most common factors for children in need are domestic violence, mental health, emotional abuse, drug and alcohol misuse, and neglect.

Seventy-two per cent of those in need were White and 53 per cent are male. Around a third are aged 10 to 15, while around a quarter are aged five to nine. However, the number of cases involving children aged 10 to 18 has risen over recent years.

For the most severe cases, child protection plans are put in place by the local authority covering the steps that need to be taken to support the child, including the services that are needed. Plans should be reviewed within the first three months and then at least every six months after that.

As of March 2019, there were 52,300 children subject to child protection plans in England. Neglect (48 per cent) and emotional abuse (35 per cent) were the most common reasons, with physical abuse accounting eight per cent of cases and sexual abuse four per cent.
The number of child protection plans is down slightly compared to 2018, but has risen from 39,100 in March 2010.

In September’s Spending Round, the government pledged £1.5 billion extra for social care from next year, although there was no detail on how much of this would be for children’s services.

Judith Blake, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Councils want to make sure that children can get the best, rather than just get by. Yet, funding pressures are coinciding with huge increases in demand for support because of problems like hardship and family conflict, which is making it increasingly difficult for them to do that.

“No family is immune to life’s challenges, and every family should feel safe in the knowledge that if they need it, help is there to get things back on track. If councils are to give children and families the help they need and deserve, it is vital they are fully funded. This is not just children’s services, but the breadth of support councils can provide, from public health to housing. This extra funding will help but it is just one year. However councils need long-term, sufficient and sustainable funding so they can deliver the best for our children and families.”


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