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A country that works for all children - executive summary

There are more children and young people in our society than ever before yet they are at risk of being short changed as the nation’s focus turns to ‘Brexit,’ the economy and the growing pressures in the NHS and adult social care. The government has consistently stated its ambition to build “…a country that works for everyone…” To achieve this aim, members of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) believe we must first invest in children and young people to build a country that works for all children and their families.

Local authorities are ambitious about improving children’s life chances but a series of conflicting national policy initiatives - particularly in relation to welfare reform - coupled with dramatic reductions in public sector funding, are increasingly affecting our ability to improve outcomes. There are four million children living below the poverty line currently, two thirds of whom live in working households, this is a relatively new phenomenon and it is concerning for ADCS members that England does not have a child poverty reduction strategy, particularly in light of the Institute of Fiscal Studies prediction that the number of children living in poverty will increase to a staggering five million by 2020/21. We know that family income has a causal relationship with poor child outcomes but poverty is not only measured in financial terms. Many children, young people and families also find themselves experiencing poverty of access to opportunities. This can take many forms, including children with additional needs being squeezed out of mainstream school to those living in rural areas having limited access to essential public services e.g. youth centres and libraries. This inequality of access does nothing to support the social mobility agenda.

Whilst councils across the country have safeguarded spending on child protection services to protect the most vulnerable, the unintended consequence of the government’s austerity programme has been to drive up demand for these services as more and more families find themselves at the point of crisis. The Child Poverty Action Group suggests the annual cost of tackling child poverty in the U.K. is £29 billion, this sum dwarfs the estimated £2 billion funding gap in children’s services (LGA, 2017).

ADCS members are concerned that our ability to address the growing pressures in the child protection system and wider children’s services, including schools, via the provision of early help and support to families is being eroded by austerity. The Children Acts of 1989 and 2004 aimed to improve services for children by promoting early help and multi-agency working to bring about positive outcomes for children, young people and their families but these preventative duties have never been sufficiently funded. We are not, nor should we be, a blue light service.

Poverty constrains people’s opportunities, only through collective actions can we drive change to achieve a country that works for all children. The lack of sustainable funding for children’s services, including schools, must be addressed as a matter of urgency. ADCS members urge the marshalling of resources across the various government departments with responsibilities for different aspects of children’s lives and a reaffirmation of the value of preventative services. The importance of investing in the early years and mental health services should similarly be recognised. A cross-government review is needed to understand better the reasons for, and links between, rising levels of child poverty and demand for children’s statutory services and the results of this exercise should feed into the development of a child poverty reduction strategy for England. Local and central government must work together to develop a coherent workforce strategy for the totality of children’s services - we need to recruit and retain the best staff to work with children, young people and families, particularly the most vulnerable.

ADCS members believe that every child deserves a happy, safe childhood in which they can thrive, not just survive, we hope others do too.