20 October 2015
How much do we spend on services for children? This apparently straightforward question is surprisingly hard to answer and most jurisdictions simply don't know.
For nearly two decades the Dartington Social Research Unit (DSRU) has been helping local authorities improve outcomes for children. At the beginning of any engagement, we start with a few simple questions of senior staff to get a general sense of the authority - How many children are there? How many people work directly with children? How much is spent on services? We usually get a pretty quick response to the first question, a good guess for the second and then there is typically an uncomfortable silence followed by some mumbling for the third. Individual budget holders always have a very good understanding of their area, but rarely does anyone have a sense of the combined contribution of education, health, social care, and youth justice. This has always surprised me, since the figures are substantial.
Knowing the total investment in services for children is particularly important at a time of reducing budgets. It is hard to argue for more money for children's services, or even to protect current levels of funding without a good grasp of current investment, how the money is spent, to what effect and the extent to which it is meeting need.
It was a privilege to launch a DSRU report setting out an analysis addressing these significant questions. Thanks to a grant from the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Northern Ireland Children's Commissioner, we were, for the first time, able to present a children's budget for Northern Ireland.
Many believed it simply was not possible (the exercise required gathering financial information from 10 government departments) and it is certainly not an exercise for the faint hearted. Such information has not been collated at the national level in Northern Ireland before, and we have struggled to find good examples from other jurisdictions We can now say with confidence that at least £5175 is spent on average on every child each year. Of the £2.28 billion total investment in children's services, just under three-quarters (72%) of that is overseen by the Department for Education (mainly for schools) and just over one fifth (21%) is overseen by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Across all departments, including volunteers, there are over 60,000 people working directly with children (one for every eight children).
As well as charting expenditure across departments, we sought to establish the extent to which money was spent on preventive, early intervention and treatment activities. We were also interested to see the level of investment at the national level in evidence-based programmes. (We have long had a hunch that despite much talk across the UK about the importance of using interventions proven to work, that this has not affected funding decisions.) Of the total investment, about one fifth funded treatment and maintenance services like care placements for looked after children and specialist support for disabled children. Just over one tenth supported targeted prevention and early intervention activity. The remainder (over a half) was spent on universal promotion and prevention services.
Unfortunately our efforts to chart how much of the £2.28 billion was spent on evidence-based intervention were thwarted by lack of sufficient information at the national level. National bodies determine how much money is to be spent, for example on education, but it is at the local level that decisions are made about what that money is spent on. We were unable to find any budgets dedicated to the funding of evidence-based programmes; local areas may however have been supporting such programmes.
This exercise provides an important baseline. It is a good response to the UN Charter for the Rights of the Child, which expects states to produce children's budgets, and it will allow the Commissioner to track changes in expenditure as austerity tightens its grip on public services.
It will also help the Atlantic Philanthropies monitor the effect of their ten-year investment in prevention and early intervention in the region. For the last decade the foundation has generously funded voluntary sector organisations to adopt, adapt and implement a variety of evidence-based programmes and innovations. They have also funded a major programme of robust evaluation to determine the impact these investments have had on child wellbeing. Their aspiration is for the public sector to be persuaded by this evidence to shift investments from less effective provision into that which has been tested and found to work. The hope being that a major philanthropic investment over a long period can lever substantial and sustained change in public expenditure. With the findings set out in this report, that progress can now be measured empirically.
This report is an important first step. It provides a pragmatic methodology that can be easily replicated at regional and local level. It could provide area-to-area comparisons and a way of monitoring changes in investments over time. Where, however, such data can come into its own is when a local analysis of expenditure is set alongside robust data on children's needs and use of services.
As part of our place-based reform work, we have taken this approach in 17 jurisdictions in England and Scotland. We have provided local areas with robust and reliable data on the wellbeing of all children, accompanied by accurate data on their use of services. Set alongside an analysis of children's budgets, using the method described above, we have prompted important discussions about de-commissioning of ineffective services and re-focusing of budgets to prevention.
Despite all the talk of evidence-based intervention prompted by the Graham Allen Report and more recently the Early Intervention Foundation, we have not yet found anywhere spending more than half of one percent of total expenditure on evidence-based programmes. It will be very interesting to see if the Atlantic Philanthropies work across the island of Ireland can nudge that percentage up.
See the full report here.
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