On Wednesday morning the Children’s Commissioner for England launched two major pieces of research. The annual Vulnerability Framework shows the full breadth and depth of children’s additional needs in England, from mental health to fragile families. And an in-depth study of council spending on children covers everything from school buses to special educational needs. The study shows that a great deal of council spending is going on some extremely expensive help for a very small number of difficult cases. This doesn’t mean that those children don’t need help, but in many cases the fact that they have reached this stage is a result of the failure to help them earlier on. And the lack of money for everyone else jeopardises the ability to support thousands more children who are often left with no support at all. If the right support could be put in place as soon as problems become apparent, many more children could stay with their families.
The Children’s Commissioner research demonstrates that there is a significant gap between the needs of children in England, and the degree to which these needs are being met. Whether it is the whole family that needs support (such as when a parent has significant health problems) or child-level needs (such as childhood mental health problems), only a fraction of children are getting the help they need. Roughly one-third of children in need are receiving some support; one-third are known to the authorities but are getting no support or the support is unclear; and a third are not even known to the agencies that could help because their needs have not been identified or referred on. It currently takes around a year for most hard-pressed parents in Suffolk to get a diagnosis of autism for their child.
This failure to help has devastating consequences for children’s short-term well-being and long-term prospects. The Department for Education’s ‘Child in Need’ review published earlier this month showed that across England 1.6 million children ought to have been getting statutory social services in the past six years. These children normally start school less able to cope than the children around them, and fall further and further behind as they grow up. Just 17% of the children who have ever been considered ‘in need’ go on to pass English and Maths GCSEs.
Many families have come to my surgeries recently to seek my help in urging the County Council to find some support for their children, especially the right school places. When children can no longer cope with mainstream schools there are nowhere near enough different alternatives to enable them to continue their education in a supported environment. Support for children to remain in mainstream schools is also woefully inadequate. Far too many pupils are being permanently excluded from school – in some cases those children should be able to transfer to other supported learning places, and in some cases they should be getting more support to stay in their school, but it helps nobody, least of all the children themselves, for them to simply be wandering the streets. On Tuesday, Adoption UK briefed MPs that adopted children are 20 times more likely than others to be permanently excluded from school. Our schools need far more resources – both money and expertise – to help them reduce their level of exclusions.
For too long the government – and the County Council – have focused only on managing demand for services instead of asking ‘what helps these children lead happy, successful lives?’ We need to ask why families are under strain, what health and counselling needs they have, how our schools can be more supportive, and whether there are additional special schools or children’s health services which could make a difference. The Commissioner’s reports estimate that it will require about £10bn a year extra by 2025 to transform health, education and children’s social care so that they help all the children and families that need it, and make a meaningful difference to the lives and prospects of several million children.
The extra resources needed may seem daunting, but the cost to those children, to their families, and to Society as a whole, of NOT helping them is immense. We need to be more ambitious for these children and what they can achieve. At present, there is no strategy for children with extra needs within Government and this needs to change. The Children’s Commissioner is challenging the Government to make these children a priority, so that we can have a plan to improve their lives and their outcomes. If we don’t do so, we will be storing up trouble for the future, for them and for ourselves.