Gaps in provision for millions of children, warns Children's Commissioner

By agency reporter
June 13, 2018

The office of the Children’s Commissioner for England has published research carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) into the levels of government spending on children between 2000 and 2020.

The research, commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner ahead of next year’s Spending Review, looks at budget changes affecting children over the last two decades. For the first time, it looks across government at what is spent, on which children, rather than focusing on individual departmental budgets. The work is designed to contribute to the debate about what we spend on whom and when, in an era of austerity, and is a part of the Commissioner’s ongoing work around childhood vulnerability.

The report, ‘Public Spending on Children in England: 2000 to 2020’, shows that levels of government spending on children have been broadly maintained over the last twenty years. Last year, total spending on children from the main government departments which fund services for children – but excluding healthcare where data is limited – was over £120 billion or £10,000 per child under 18. Spending per child is 42 per cent higher in real terms than it was in 2000–01, although 10 per cent below its high point of £11,300 in 2010–11.

However, the analysis also reveals a number of trends which are of deep concern, with mainstream and acute services, such as 4-16 education and support for children in care, protected at the expense of targeted preventative services. Almost half of spending on children’s services now goes on 73,000 children in the care system, while the other half has to cover the remaining 11.7 million children in England. Altogether, 72 per cent of children’s services budgets go towards helping families in severe need.

The report shows there has been a significant reorientation of spending in recent years towards statutory help for children in crisis, while overall children’s services spending has been largely frozen since 2009–10. Spending on preventative support, such as Sure Start and young people’s services, has consequently been cut by around 60 per cent in real-terms between 2009–10 and 2016–17.

Other findings in the report include:

  • Spending per head on local authority-delivered children’s services increased rapidly over the 2000s, doubling in real-terms from around £430 to about £860 per child. However, it is due to fall back by about 20 per cent between 2009–10 and 2019–20, taking it back to 2005–06 levels.
  • Overall education spending increased considerably during the 2000s and has been largely protected since 2010. However, this disguises cuts to funding for 16-18 education of around 17 per cent between 2009–10 and 2019–20. In real terms, sixth form and further education spending per student will be at the same level in 2019–20 as it was in 1989–90.
  • There are growing pressures on ‘high needs’ education budgets, as more children than ever are now attending specialist high-needs institutions. The numbers of pupils in maintained special schools increased by 25 per cent between 2007 and 2017, far outstripping overall pupil growth and putting pressure on overall schools funding. The increase is largely driven by a huge rise in the numbers of children with autism in maintained special schools (up more than 50 per cent between 2012 and 2017), along with increases in pupils with severe learning difficulties and speech, language and communication needs.
  • Health spending on children is difficult to calculate, due to the inadequacies in NHS data on care provided outside hospitals, but the IFS estimates it has remained broadly stable at £800 per child since 2010.
  • Total benefits spending for families with children in 2019-20 will be £57 billion, 43 per cent above the level of £40 billion in 2000-01, but a fall of 11 per cent since 2009-10.
  • Public spending on benefits for families with children, divided by all children in England, is currently £5,000 per child and will fall to £4,700 per child by 2019-20, reflecting a total 17 per cent fall since 2009-10. This will leave spend per head the same as it was in 2006-7, and 33 per cent higher in real terms than it was in 2000-01. By comparison, benefit spending per pensioner in 2019-20 will remain at around £10,000, some 27 per cent higher than it was in 2000-01.
  • The rate of child poverty today is roughly double the rate of pensioner poverty.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, responding to the IFS findings, said: “This analysis shows that while overall public spending on children has been broadly maintained over the last twenty years, millions of vulnerable children who are not entitled to statutory support will be missing out because of the huge cost of helping a small number of children who are in crisis.

“While every child should receive the support they need, the economic and social costs of this current strategy are unsustainable. The cost to the state is ultimately greater than it should be and the cost to those vulnerable children missing out on support will last a lifetime. Every day we are seeing the consequences of helping children too late – in pressures on the family courts system, special schools and the care system and in the spiralling numbers of school exclusions and the consequent increase in younger and younger children linked to violent street gangs.

“I hope this analysis will help to move the debate on from one simply about the amount we spend on children, to a debate about how we spend it. Next year’s Spending Review offers an opportunity to step in and support these children falling through the gaps, avoiding government silos and designing cross-departmental services built around a clear identification of the unmet needs of kids. Spending allocations should be seen through the prism of the child, not the prism of which bit of Whitehall thinks it can spend it best.

“If we can get this right, we will be acting in the best interests not only of vulnerable children, but of all children and the country.”

* Read Public Spending on Children: 2000 to 2020 here

* Children's Commissioner for England https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/

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