There is growing concern about the impact of the economic crisis on spending on children’s services. Les Lawrence, the chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, urged those at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Conference last week to “double plan”. He was referring to the uncertain outcome of the next election, but delegates may have had other things in mind. For ex-social workers in the audience who oversee care planning decisions this may mean: to accommodate a child, with the prospect of a disrupted life rattling around our dismal care system; or to put together a support package that just might go some way toward stabilising a precarious existence living in their own impoverished and chaotic family. For the ex-teacher directors of children’s services the “double plan” concept may have brought to mind the constant oscillating between their dual roles of attending to children’s welfare (otherwise known as social work) and giving them a half-decent education.
In these impossible circumstances, Lawrence’s call for “disinvesting” in those services that fail to meet “specific outcomes and a quantitative benefit” may sound like just the kind of thing that’s needed. But it could as easily mean more of the same . . . just less. While it is more important now than ever that local authorities – and indeed the government – are held to account about “what works”, without a firmer basis on which to build the ethos of our schools and social services, it is hard to tell what criteria should be adopted in any public spending audit on services for children. The pressure keeps mounting both on families and on the services that should be meeting their needs.
The children’s secretary, Ed Balls, has already sent schools to the naughty step for adding to the misery of parents struggling to find the money to pay for pocket money, school meals, travel costs, school trips and holidays, with the expense of school uniforms.
And times are indeed hard. The authors of Barnardo’s From Crunch To Crisis: Winter Hardship For Families In The UK report, warn of the effects of unemployment and circling loan sharks as the poorest families descend into a “constant cycle of deprivation”. One in three 10 to 11-year-olds say they worry about the credit crunch, according to a survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s a few months ago; and the Children’s Society have found that half of 11 to 13-year-olds are exposed to their parents’ money worries – with one in five missing out on their holidays this year, and a quarter experiencing a cut in their pocket money.
However, while I wouldn’t want to understate the very real impact of our failing economy on ordinary families (never mind the poorest sections most likely to come into contact with social services) it is all too easy to get carried away with the insistent rhetoric about how bad things really are.
According to Bob Reitemeier, the chief executive of the Children’s Society, children have become the “frontline victims of the recession”. Of course this isn’t true – their parents are on the “frontline” and they are not victims either. On the whole, they do the best for their kids and often in trying circumstances, are fighting in the very adult world of work to raise the resources to help make their childhood a good one. All of which makes the ill-founded and doom-laden pronouncements of the charity responsible for the hysterical A Good Childhood report, so hard to take. Reitemeier, for instance, using the recession as yet another opportunity to guilt trip the nation about the way it treats its children. He tells us (without the need for the kind of “evidence” demanded by the LGA), that “if we fail children now we are going to, as a society, suffer the consequences for generations to come”.
If we are to have a grown-up discussion about doing the best for children now and in the future, and making sure that they have the kinds of lives we think they should lead, we need to get beyond this kind of thing. Despite the economic downturn, children’s lives – not least in the UK – have never been better. That much should be self-evident. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be made much better. For instance, by ensuring that the poorest families get the resources they need, and that all children have greater freedom to explore the world around them – not by blaming parents but by challenging the anxieties promoted by the child worriers in officialdom and beyond. That is why – as much as we need to balance the books – a return to first principles about the role of schools and of social services in children’s and families’ lives is so important.