Children’s early intervention support services are facing crisis. While the State retains statutory responsibility for children’s social care, increased responsibility is being placed upon schools and children’s charities to stop children moving up the thresholds of intervention and into care. However, the financial and infrastructure support for schools, children’s charities and services to achieve this has significantly diminished over the past decade, and COVID-19 may be the final straw for many.
COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on the charitable sector. Charities are projecting a loss of a third of their overall income, with over half reducing their levels of service. As 59% of voluntary sector organisations aim to benefit children and young people it is unsurprising that children’s support services have been heavily hit. Nonetheless, even before the pandemic, children’s charities were calling for greater investment in children’s services. Between 2010/11 and 2017/18, funding for children’s early intervention services has decreased from £3.7bn to £1.9bn. Simultaneously, the demand for children’s services has been increasing. Record numbers of children are going into care, whilst child poverty and children in need of support continues to rise.
With many early intervention services being delivered by charities, the commissioning of these services has come under significant scrutiny. Commissioning is a process by which public sector organisations, such as local government, the national health service and police, use to plan, procure, deliver and evaluate services for local communities. In my new book, Children’s Charities in Crisis: Early Intervention and the State, I examine the commissioning of early intervention support over the past decade, and the role of children’s charities, schools and the State in protecting some of the most vulnerable children in society. Exploring this through the lived experiences of over 80 frontline staff in charities, 20 Commissioners and school staff, reveals some significant problems.
Many charities and children’s preventative service providers feel they are increasingly reducing the scope of their services, arguing that commissioned contracts force them to deliver overly prescriptive, narrowly targeted, short-term provision, with burdensome and meaningless monitoring requirements that are often perceived to not meet the needs of their communities. Commissioners highlight issues of bureaucratic procurement rules, ever reducing resources and an increasingly defensive charitable sector diminishing their ability to respond effectively to children’s needs. Whilst schools highlight significant reductions in the availability of early help and community support services placing an increased pressure on them to support children, whilst they too experience funding cuts and increased performance pressures. And whilst there may be some disagreement between State, school and charity actors about where the fault lies, one thing is clear, all are seemingly in agreement that things cannot stay as they are.
There is a tendency across many practitioner, policy-based and academic commentators to position commissioning as either good or bad, with significant focus placed upon the power relationship between the State and the sector, and the marketisation of public services. However, exploring the complexity of the commissioning relationship, commissioning itself is not the problem per se, rather it is how the commissioning process plays out which creates tension, and more collaborative commissioning approaches are possible. Indeed, over the 120 pages of the 2018 Civil Society Strategy there is a recognition that commissioning has created a system which propels overly bureaucratic, process driven approaches, often favouring economic cost over quality of service provision, and a need to seek more collaborative alternatives.
However, currently existing tensions are only being exacerbated by the unprecedented circumstances presented by COVID-19. Charity leaders warn that children’s services are going to face a surge in demand, as the pandemic magnifies the inequalities in society, and children are likely to face increased poverty, mental health issues, educational inequalities and abuse. Simultaneously local authorities are likely to have their funding further squeezed. This, alongside the reductions in fundraised income, will be a double blow for charities and service providers, already suffering from a decade of austerity; resources are decreasing as the demand for need increases.
COVID-19, coupled with the existing pressures on children’s preventative services, provides the urgent, action imperative to develop innovative collaborative commissioning responses which step outside of the traditional and policy ‘rule bound’ restrictions. Within my own research I came across several examples where Commissioners, charities, schools and communities, sought to collaboratively work in partnership to pool resources to meet local need together. However, these were rare and often in spite of the regulatory commissioning processes rather than because of them, with Commissioners ‘bending the rules’ to facilitate collaboration. Continued and potential further reductions in Local Authority spending will only constrain the capacity for collaborative commissioning further.
What we need is a system reform, moving away from competitive tendering of children’s services, and instead embracing deeper and meaningful collaborative partnerships between local authorities, charities, philanthropy, schools and communities. There needs to be increased recognition for the importance of early intervention services in helping prevent children and families moving up the thresholds of care. This needs to be underpinned by urgent, sustainable investment from government in preventative services which are easily and freely accessed by vulnerable families.
As my book title implies, the evidence suggests that many children’s charities delivering frontline preventative services were already in crisis before the pandemic, and without urgent investment and support this will only deepen, leaving many vulnerable children and families without suitable support. My hope is that this book sparks debate amongst academics, policy professionals and practitioners alike, about how we may collaboratively come together to address these challenges both now, and in the future.
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