The country’s social care system does not currently achieve the best outcomes for children and their families – and significant change is needed in order to alleviate unsustainable pressure on services.
These are the key findings of a report on children’s social care, carried out by the directors of children’s services at 12 North-East councils.
The North East Regional Care Report, published on Wednesday (July 28), will feed into the national Independent Care Review and aims to provide the views of those working at a local level in the region.
The Independent Care Review has been commissioned by the government. Directors of children’s services in the north east believe that is it important that the regional context they can provide informs this national review.
As the individuals with statutory accountability for children’s services in the region, they are uniquely placed to reflect on the challenges within the system and make recommendations for change.
The North-East Regional Care Report sets out the key challenges local authorities face on a daily basis and outlines the impact these have on children and their families.
The report goes on to make a number of recommendations for system-wide change, many of which align with the Case for Change document published in June by the national review team.
However, the north east report goes further and sets out a range of recommendations for change.
The report demonstrates that inequality is stark in the north east, with high levels of poverty and deprivation.
Child poverty defines the context in which the care system operates in the north east and extensive research shows a clear correlation between deprivation and the level of need for social care support.
The North-East has consistently had the highest rates of statutory social care involvement of the English regions, including the highest rates of Children in Care, Child Protection Plans and Children in Need.
At the same time, the rate of Children in Care in the north east increased by 77 per cent between 2009 and 2020 compared to a national average of 24 per cent, and all 12 North-East local authorities now have a Children in Care rate that is above the national average.
Even before the pandemic, the picture in the region was deteriorating markedly, with the north east experiencing the steepest increase in relative child poverty between 2014/15 and 2019/20.
However, the report identifies a strong capacity for improvement, with some excellent examples of innovative practice already in place in the region. Three of the region’s 12 local authorities are Sector Led Improvement Partners of the Department for Education, having been recognised for their high-quality practice.
The report looks at six key topic areas. It makes recommendations to ensure: fairer and more effective use of funding; improved working practices; and an overall change of approach to provide earlier intervention, flexibility and ensure children are in the most appropriate setting and families receive the help they need.
The six areas are:
• Early help – there is a need for a shift towards a more flexible approach to social care support with well-resourced early help provision.
• Partnerships and integration – national policy needs to drive more integrated working between partners, with a statutory duty for organisations to collaborate in order to better meet the needs of children.
• Care markets – the significant and increasing cost of children’s residential care and foster care is placing financial pressure on local authorities. Reform is needed in how care is provided, with investment to increase capacity.
• Ofsted regulatory framework – the needs of young people must be a clearer driver for regulation and a review of the regulatory framework is required.
• Workforce – sufficient, well-trained staff are needed, with more fluid roles to allow for flexibility across agencies and professions.
• Court systems and family justice – stronger arrangements are needed for collaboration across the courts system to enable greater consistency and cultural change.
John Pearce, chair of the North-East Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “Endemic poverty in many of our communities, together with a shortfall in funding, is driving dramatic increases in the need for intervention through children’s social care.
“We know these issues are not unique to our area, but they are being felt particularly strongly in the North-East due to deep-rooted socio-economic disparities.
“Family networks are very much valued in our region and there is a strong sense of community but, nevertheless, many residents are affected by longstanding and significant levels of inequality and disadvantage.
“The numbers of children needing care are unsustainable and a different pattern of care is the only solution. We must address system-wide barriers so that our frontline staff have the capacity to build strong relationships with children and their families to support meaningful change.
“Our report describes the vital importance of partnership working with health services, the police and schools, and shows that working more closely within our local communities, we can make sure families get the help they need sooner in order to prevent problems from escalating. We believe investment in social regeneration should be central to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
“As local authorities, we are working at the frontline of the care system, so are in a unique position to add a first-hand perspective to the Independent Care Review, not only providing an understanding of the current situation, but also offer solutions to the issues raised.
“Here in the North-East, we have a shared sense of purpose, a real passion for what we do and a strong collaborative approach which, we believe, can help us bring about a radical change in ways of working.
“We believe we can make a powerful contribution to the national debate and inform national thinking.”
The North-East Regional Care Review is published on behalf of ADCS North East, the professional body made up of the region’s 12 directors of children’s services and their senior management teams.