Children’s services in and beyond austerity

Michael Little (The Social Research Unit at Dartington, London, UK)
Nick Axford (Social Research Unit at Dartington, London, UK)

Journal of Children's Services

ISSN: 1746-6660

Article publication date: 16 March 2015



Little, M. and Axford, N. (2015), "Children’s services in and beyond austerity", Journal of Children's Services, Vol. 10 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Children’s services in and beyond austerity

Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Children’s Services, Volume 10, Issue 1

We mark another half decade of the Journal of Children’s Services with a reflection on social policy for children over the past five years, which in the UK now coincides with the national election cycle. We can only spend a few words on the task, in some cases reducing important policy developments to sound bites, but many of the themes have been expounded further in papers either published in the Journal since 2010 or accepted for forthcoming editions.

The backdrop of any review must be austerity, a stripping away of government budgets that might, in England at least, result in a permanent reduction in the proportion of GDP allocated to public services. If governments keep their promise to be evidence-based, then the findings of most respected macroeconomists will provide reason to end austerity in the next five years (even earlier if the anticipated European political crisis comes to a head).

The 2008 financial crash has left a trail of damage, mainly felt by people with the least resources. Such was the assault on local budgets one might have anticipated a series of innovations in children’s services. On the contrary, it is remarkable how little frontline services have changed. It is also something of a mystery, perhaps even a source of embarrassment, that taking between 20 and 35 per cent out of local government budgets appears to have been achieved with so little impact on the experience of children and families. Where was all that money being spent?

The zeitgeist has altered and to some extent it has favoured a shift of resources towards prevention and early intervention and a greater respect for evidence – a direction of travel reflected in many papers in this Journal over the past five years. In parallel, the prospect of private investment in public services and the potential for a return on that investment has emerged around specialist products such as social impact bonds.

As much as it would be good to say that these ideas have translated into real change for children and families, it is arguable that their impact remains slight. We routinely find in England, Scotland and the USA that investment in evidence-based programmes remains less than one per cent of overall expenditure on children. The most scaled evidence-based programme in the world is Family Nurse Partnership (Nurse Family Partnership in the USA), with a market penetration in England of about 25 per cent – no mean feat but not yet implementation at scale. We are also unaware of any results showing a social impact bond that has produced sustained impact at scale on child well-being.

As for the next decade, different types of evidence will bear on public policy. There is now data showing that most children in greatest need receive no help from the so-called “high-end” services of child welfare, youth justice and special education. There is also data to show that a significant proportion of those who do get these high-end services are not those in greatest need. Austerity or no austerity, public policy at central and local government level should attend to this problem of the supply of public services.

We are also beginning to learn much, but have much more to learn, about what happens to those children experiencing lots of disadvantage but missing out on what the high-end services have to offer. Do they have the worst outcomes? Not necessarily. Why? We don’t know, but the role of civil society, extended family, neighbours and local volunteers cannot be discounted.

As public services look to partner with civil society, there is also a renewed interest in relationships. This is fed in part by science that measures variance in outcomes attributable to a good working alliance between a person who needs help and one who can provide that help. It also draws on the testimony of people who have faced severe and multiple disadvantage and whose perspective on the world and its possibilities has been influenced by a life-changing relationship.

We hope to encourage these areas of innovation through this Journal. They promise much, not least the potential to shift attention away from intervention, early or late. What shines through in the literature about relationships is the absence of doing anything other than using conversation as a mirror. The relationship does not achieve its impact by one person instructing another on how to behave but by both people changing how they think, opening up the possibility of different patterns of behaviour.

At a broad social policy level we expect the emerging zeitgeist to alter the relationship between central and local government, between public sector services and civil society, and between people paid to help and those prepared to help without remuneration. For example, public service reform may well mean re-defining public sector to include civil society, and re-defining the workforce to include volunteers.

Which brings us back to the UK General Election, and the many European elections that will follow. There is a widespread perception that Brussels in Europe and Westminster in the UK have lost touch with the people they are intended to serve. Rediscovering this connection, or reestablishing this relationship, may well kindle new opportunities for children and children’s services in the coming decade.

Michael Little and Nick Axford

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