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Children’s social care: managing increased demand

Nick Clarke Nick Clarke

Supporting children's social care (CSC) has never been more important. Our latest analysis demonstrates that conjecture about increased pressure on services for children caused by the pandemic is true. Nick Clarke explores the data and explains the implications of this evidence.

In the last 12 months there has been a lot of attention on how the current circumstances are impacting care for vulnerable adults, but less so on children. Our work with councils across the country and access to up-to-date, unpublished case and finance data clearly indicates that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on CSC demand, particularly at two key periods: the initial closure of school buildings, and then again from July onwards.

As we exit a third national lockdown, our analysis indicates that the increased demand on CSC is likely to repeat itself. This pressure on children's services is going to put many councils in a difficult situation. It is still too early to make accurate predictions, but current demand forecasts are based on the working assumption that for some councils the impact will actually be worse.

Increasing demand on children's social care

The evidence

The two graphs below highlight some trends across 20 councils: the number of external CSC residential placements when the first national lockdown and school closures occurred (April-June 2020), and the period immediately following it (July - December 2020).

The councils included in the data are a random mix of unitary authorities, counties, metropolitan boroughs and city councils.

The data on rising demand for children's social care Understand the situation and get prepared

The results are stark:

When we assessed the average weekly cost of external CSC residential placements for the same 20 councils, we found that it had increased for virtually every council - rising 6% on average in the six months from April 2020 alone, compared to a 5% increase across the whole year from April 2019 to March 2020.

With 85% of councils overspending on their children’s social care budget last year, this increase in both demand and cost will put even greater pressure on councils to continue delivering services and balancing their budgets.

The implications

There are four recognised primary drivers for CSC:

  • Domestic violence
  • Substance misuse
  • Deprivation / poverty
  • Children, young people and family mental health issues

None of these factors are mutually exclusive, and every situation obviously includes other factors as well.

All of the publicly available evidence and our own work in this area makes it clear that the current circumstances have exacerbated these social problems. The increased demand on CSC arising from this situation is likely to continue for the rest of the year and well beyond potentially.

Our analysis also shows that the average weekly cost of an external residential placement is now over £4,000 per week (a near 50% increase in 5 years), so combined with the increase in demand, there will be a lot of pressure on CSC budgets this year.

How can councils mitigate this situation?

Long term prospects

One small positive is that as pressure on CSC departments has increased over the last few years, at least awareness of the challenges has become more widespread. As a result, two reviews are now in motion: the government has commissioned an independent review into CSC and the Competition and Markets Authority will be undertaking a market study on CSC provision.

It is unlikely, however, that any positive outcomes from these reviews will be felt by CSC departments in the current financial year – and potentially next year as well.

What can councils do now?

Forecasting is key. Councils can do a lot to manage and alleviate these pressures, but detailed and robust forecasts, based on accurate data on what is happening right now – including the impacts of the pandemic – both in your council and across the country is critical. This will enable you to set a realistic baseline for projected CSC spend in a COVID world and manage/set stakeholder expectations.

Budgets for this financial year may not fully reflect the impact of coronavirus, and there are many other factors that are outside the control of CSC departments, and councils. Building a clear picture of the current state of play, and understanding the likely future demand and cost pressures, will put councils in a better position to mitigate these pressures.

For more information or assistance on understanding this issue contact Nick Clarke.