The Department for Education “still does not fully understand what is driving demand for children’s social care”, the National Audit Office has said.
This comes after the National Audit Office (NAO) stated more than two years ago that the Department for Education (DfE) had made “poor progress” in improving children’s social care services.
It has prompted local councils to call on the Government to heed “consistent and increasingly urgent warnings that children’s services are now at a tipping point”, while Public Accounts Committee chairman Meg Hillier said the Government has “got to grasp the nettle” after an £872 million overspend last year on children’s social care and local government funding pressures.
The Pressures on Social Care report concludes: “Over two years ago we judged that the department had made poor progress in improving children’s social care services. The department’s goal is now that all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, should have access to high-quality support by 2022.
“While the department has put in place a programme of reform, it still does not fully understand what is driving demand for children’s social care or why there is such wide variation between local authorities in their children’s social care activity and costs. It has not yet done the work to tie together available sources of information and therefore lacks a well-informed pathway to achieve its goal.
“While the department has recognised the need for this analysis, it will not complete the work until summer 2019. Even if its analysis is completed successfully it will be a tall order for the department to achieve its goal within three years.”
It is estimated that £8.8 billion was spent by local authorities on children’s services in 2017-18 and that 91% of local authorities overspent on their children’s social care in that period, the NAO said.
There were 655,630 children who were referred to local authorities in 2017-2018 because of concerns about their welfare, a rise of 7% since 2010-11. This was slightly above population growth for children up to the age of 17.
Local authorities carried out 77% more child protection assessments but the reasons for this disproportionate increase in assessments compared with referrals are unknown, according to the NAO.
There has also been a 15% jump in the number of the most expensive and serious cases of children being taken into care since 2010-11, the NAO said.
Local authorities expect to spend £4.2 billion on children in care in 2018-19, which is £350 million more than they budgeted for in 2017-18.
Use of residential care has increased but local authorities often lack suitable placements. Just 32% said they have access to enough residential homes for children aged 14 to 15 while 41% said they have access for those aged 16 to 17.
The report states that “until recently, the department had not seen it as a central part of its responsibilities to understand drivers in demand for children’s social care across all local authorities”.
Its previous estimate had been that 41% of the increase in the number of children in need between 2009-10 and 2016-17 was due to population growth, but it had not quantified the impact of other causes to almost 60% of the increase, according to the NAO.
Great variations can be found in the amounts spent on children’s social care, with local authorities annually paying from £566 to £5,166 per child across different local authorities.
The NAO’s analysis suggests that local authority characteristics may account for 44% of the variation between different local authorities over time in how they respond to demand for children’s services.
Different levels of deprivation could explain 15% of the variation while national policy changes could account for a further 10% of the variation, according to the NAO analysis.
The report found no link between local authorities’ spending per child in need and the quality of services, pointing out that some services rated “good” by Ofsted had seen spending of £570 per head, while others with the same rating had a spending of £4,980.
Hillier said: “Children’s safety and wellbeing must not be subject to a postcode lottery and it is appalling that the department does not fully understand what is driving demand for children’s social care or why there are such wide variations between local authorities.
“It must act swiftly to ensure long overdue improvements are made.”
Anntoinette Bramble, chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Nine in 10 councils had to spend more than they had budgeted for children’s social care last year.
“It is clear that the most urgent and pressing issue is not variability but the very real funding crisis facing vital children’s services across the country, which face a funding gap of £3.1 billion by 2025.
“This is forcing many to cut the early intervention services which can help children avoid needing more serious and costly care later on.”
Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “We have raised the bar in children’s social care and the child protection system, so that children at risk are identified sooner, and we are tackling the reasons why children are in need in the first place.
“The number of local children’s services rated outstanding is growing, and the number rated inadequate has dropped by a third since 2017, from 30 down to 19.
“By 2022, I want this reduced to fewer than 10% of councils, and we are on track to meet this.
“As the report acknowledges, we are currently working across government to improve our understanding of demand for children’s services.
“And we know there are pressures on councils, which is why we are providing an additional £410 million in the Budget for adult and children’s social care and an extra £84 million to expand innovative practice to support vulnerable families across a further 20 councils.”