Features: January 20th, 2011

Although front line services have been given some protection from the swinging budget cuts, there will be casualties and children’s services will be among them. Some cuts will have a knock on effect. Failure to intervene in the lives of children now will mean that other budgets, such as health and police, will rise in the future. The author questions whether those other budgets should help to fund children’s services now on an ‘invest to save’ basis.

By Pete Houselander.

The winds of change are currently blowing a gale through the public sector. A picture is beginning to emerge of the profound mark the Coalition’s planned budget cuts are going to have on the way authorities target and deliver services in the years ahead.

Representatives from different government departments are becoming increasingly vociferous in their efforts to demonstrate why the services they provide should be spared the full force of the spending squeeze. In the current economic climate, these arguments are unlikely to result in a stay of execution for many.

Local Connexions and Youth Services teams are already facing the uncomfortable glare of the spotlight as councils look to save money. A number of stories have appeared in the media of authorities that have had to make widespread changes to the way they operate so that they can continue to deliver key services for children and young people with fewer staff. This is despite strong evidence that investment in children’s services can reap long term savings – money invested wisely now can have far reaching consequences over decades.

In this era of increasing austerity, has the time come for ministers and policy makers to take a more innovative approach to funding children’s services?

Challenging times demand innovative thinking

Few would argue that the need to make financial savings is unavoidable. But it is vital that funding for essential children’s services is made available. Children in difficulties need support. Put simply, the cost of not intervening – to both society and the individual children themselves – is just too high.

One option is to consider whether the services that stand to benefit from a child not ‘going off the rails’ – such as health, the police and adult social care – could be asked to help pay for some key children’s services that would have a direct impact on improving outcomes.

Prevention is the key to reducing the number of vulnerable children becoming vulnerable adults. If children in difficulty aren’t given the resources and support necessary during their transition into adulthood, they will be lacking the tools they need to become valued members of their community. The increasing burden of cost to tax payers and society further down the line will also be huge in terms of tackling issues like mental health, drug misuse, teenaged parenthood and the associated impact to the community in policing crime – as well as the cost of incarceration.

In financial terms, there is evidence that a child who ends up as NEET (not in education, employment or training), for example, has a greater chance of needing more expensive support from health, the police and social services than their counterparts who remained in education or found work after leaving school.

£97,000 is the figure quoted by the London School of Economics as the life-time cost to society of supporting a young adult who becomes NEET, with the costs rising to £300,000 in some cases. This covers benefits, the use of services such as health care and the potential cost of tackling future anti-social behaviour.

Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, the president of the Faculty of Public Health, has commented on this, “NEETs are more likely to be living unhealthy lifestyles. That is to say, they are more likely to smoke, drink and have poor diets. They also have more chance of getting caught up in violent situations and having mental health problems.”

Other research also makes the case for intervening early. The Families at Risk report from the Social Exclusion Taskforce stated that 60 percent of boys whose fathers go to prison are eventually convicted themselves. With the right support, these children would have a greater chance of avoiding this outcome, improving their lives and the impact on society. And if you follow the scenario to its inevitable conclusion, you will also save the taxpayer the cost of the child’s future possible incarceration – estimated at around £40,000 a year for an adult prisoner or £100,000 for a young offender (with an additional £40,000 in indirect costs to society).

Prevention is better than cure

Clearly, targeted early intervention needs to be the order of the day. However, identifying and helping those children truly in need may entail having to make some serious changes to the way we operate.

Some local authorities are pioneering the use of technology to help them predict which children may end up in difficulty. This is allowing them to deploy resources in a more targeted manner to avoid greater costs in the future.

Looking at the data they collect on children, they can spot indicators to problems later on. Examples include exclusion or poor attendance and attainment at school combined with a complex array of social factors. This examination of data is allowing authorities to spot which children are most likely to be steered away from a trajectory that will mean more intensive, expensive support when they become adults.

Failure is not an option

As a society, we cannot fail our children. We need to find the money to give them the support they need to turn into fulfilled adults as far as is humanly possible. Is it therefore, right for us to consider asking the health services teams or police to help fund some of the children’s services local authorities offer? The benefits to all these services are clear.

If we could reduce by 10 per cent the £3.65 billion per year NEET costs, this could have a significant effect on easing the public purse. Likewise, the £3.4 billion cost of anti-social behaviour could be reduced.

New Economics Foundation research on the charity Action for Children’s early intervention work has shown that for every £1 invested in schemes designed to catch problems early and prevent their reoccurrence, the benefit to society has been worth between £7.60 and £9.20.

And according to figures from the National Audit Office, if one in ten young offenders were prevented from going to prison through early intervention, it would save over £100 million a year. This could be a strong argument for the police and youth services to consider some more joint funding of schemes targeting young people that are likely to fall into a path of crime.

With stronger funding ties in place, services such as health, the police and adult social services would also be encouraged to work more closely together, sharing key data on vulnerable children and families to get the right services and support to those that need it. This is vital to ensuring that doing more with less, results in more successful outcomes.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures and perhaps looking at funding services in a more joined up way may be a solution that will save us money and improve the future chances of the more vulnerable in society.

Pete Houselander is the children’s services managing director at Capita Children’s Services, www.capita-cs.co.uk