Schools and social services

Written by: Debbie Moss | Published:
Debbie Moss, head of policy and public affairs, National Children’s Bureau

The growing number of referrals by schools to children’s social services is an alarming trend – and all the signs point to services that do not have the capacity to cope. Debbie Moss explains

The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children recently commissioned a survey of councillors with responsibility for children’s services, which found that 87 per cent agreed that demand has risen over the last two years.

And according to new government data out this month, schools are referring more vulnerable children to social services, with more than 114,000 cases last year. This represents an increase of nearly 11,000 since the year before.

What could be driving this increase in the number of children in need of help? In our survey, half of the councillors who said demand had increased cited poverty and hardship as a factor.

This chimes with a recent report from the National Association of Head Teachers, which found that some schools were being forced to become “mini welfare states” to support vulnerable pupils as child poverty increased.

The NCB will be exploring this in more detail through a survey of school leaders on accessing specialist support from social services to address safeguarding concerns. This is part of our on-going inquiry into children’s services on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children.

When families can’t afford to make ends meet, children go to school hungry. Poor housing means children are living in damp and overcrowded conditions with no space to study or play. Financial difficulties affect parents’ mental health and relationships. There’s no doubt that poverty affects children’s education and their overall wellbeing. Clearly then, schools and social services are at the sharp end.

This is an urgent and serious problem, and it’s about to get worse. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has forecast that by 2022, 37 per cent of children will be in relative poverty, which it attributes primarily to benefits changes. Poverty will rise most sharply in the poorest areas of the country.

Alongside the increase in poverty, continued austerity and squeezed council budgets have led to cuts to other services.

Nearly half of councillors who said demand had risen, cited cuts to other services as a factor. This is not surprising. Universal services like children’s centres gave parents – including the most vulnerable – a source of easily accessible support and advice.

Rooted in the community, they helped recreate the “village” it takes to raise a child, helping mothers in particular to build peer support networks and avoid social isolation.

Youth services, another candidate for the most ravaged service in recent years, reached out to teenagers at risk of gang violence and sexual exploitation.

Councils have had no choice but to make cuts to these services, as they struggle to meet their statutory duties. Faced with a child at immediate risk, you spend what it takes to keep them safe. But with so many children at risk and less and less resource, there’s nothing left to fund the services that step in early, before children reach crisis point.

In our survey, 66 per cent of councillors said that they didn’t have the resource to provide such services in the next financial year.
Almost a quarter of councillors who said demand had increased attributed this in part to a rise in abuse and neglect. Importantly, 35 per cent thought professionals were getting better at spotting the signs of a child at risk.

This is significant, because it suggests some increases in demand are a good thing. If police, teachers and health professionals are more aware of the signs of abuse and neglect, it means children are getting help earlier.

But it still comes with a cost, and which part of government must take action and meet the costs of helping the children that have been identified?

We are only just beginning to comprehend the extent of the financial strain on children’s services. Our survey of councillors found that 40 per cent said they didn’t have the resource to meet at least one of their statutory duties.

Strikingly more than a third said they didn’t have the resource to meet the needs of children in care, suggesting that even the most vulnerable children, whose own family can’t look after them, could be missing out on vital support.

In recent years, the campaign for fairer funding in adult services has made a huge impact, winning high-profile support in the media and cross-party agreement to act.

Everyone knows that one day they or their parents or partners or children are likely to need help with their day-to-day activities: it’s a cause we can all relate to.

But children’s services are different. Most people think social care is for other people’s children, not their own. And it’s true that the number of children in care and on a child protection plan, though growing, will always be relatively small.

Perhaps then it is time to reconceptualise what we mean by children’s services. Rather than thinking about the small number of children who have reached crisis point, we should instead think about a universal, essential service, like school and the NHS, that plays a key role in our welfare state.

Children’s services should include help that’s accessible to all – whether you’re a new parent, a child with disabilities, or a young person at risk. We can’t keep going as we are, and see children’s social care reduced to an emergency service.

Children’s services need an urgent cash injection now. But they also need fair and reliable funding for years to come, so that local children and families get the right help at the right time.

  • Debbie Moss is head of policy and public affairs at the National Children’s Bureau.

Further information

NCB’s new report Off the Radar (October 2017) sheds light on the myriad challenges facing children and families, particularly those with multiple disadvantages. You can download this at


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