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What's it all about

It’s October, so there’s a fair chance if you’re a Director of Children’s Services you’re deep in your local authority’s Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), poring over your budgets for 22/23 and beyond and wondering – again – how to make efficiencies and achieve the savings necessary for a balanced budget without compromising on the quality of service provision for the children and families in your area. Is this really what it’s all about?

There’s a great antidote to death-by-a-thousand-spreadsheets; spending time with children. Last week I was lucky enough to attend the opening of a community garden at a Nursery School and Family Centre on my patch. It was a great gathering of children, families and the wider community, with some visitors from further afield. The youngest in the crowd were babes in arms and the oldest – I’d guess – certainly in their eighties – a truly intergenerational experience. The weather was dry, though we were buffeted by the wind. Everyone was taking delight in the sights, sounds and smells of the garden and appreciating the value of a natural environment in which children can play, learn, discover, take risks and connect with things as small as ants and as big as the universe!

In front of me, during the speeches, two little girls were making a collection of sycamore ‘helicopters’. They collaborated to spot and gather them, negotiated a fair distribution of the best examples, counted them, sorted them, made them into patterns and tested their flying capabilities, all without adult interference, the very epitome of learning through play. My entry point into children’s services was early years and I was catapulted back to those days of wonder at just how much physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development children cram into their busy days.

In childhood, if the conditions are right, we build the foundations of happy, healthy, successful adult lives. But childhood isn’t solely about investment in the future, it’s also about joy in the present. It can be easy to lose sight of this as we monitor our budgets and our key performance indicators (KPIs). We focus – rightly – on outcomes, and there’s no question that those future adults are important. Every so often though, we just need to ask ourselves again: what’s it like to be a child or a young person in the here and now?

By the time you read this, we should know what the Spending Review has brought for children’s services, but I’m writing this at the start of the week, when it’s still not clear whether the Chancellor has been listening to calls to direct more funding towards helping families, supporting early years provision, prioritising children’s wellbeing and all the many other elements of a much-needed strategic approach to meeting children and young people’s needs from conception right through to age 25.

What I’m hoping for in the Spending Review is a recognition that children and young people at every age and stage of their lives deserve more and better from government; that families experiencing disadvantage will receive more help to thrive; that communities will be supported to create environments where young people know they are welcome and belong; that there will be tangible compensations for the restrictions and detriments that 18 months of Covid has imposed on children and young people.

Whether my hopes for the Spending Review have been realised or not, come Monday I’ll be making the best of it alongside my colleagues in local authorities across the land. Thinking about outcomes, planning for the future, squeezing the most out of my budgets. To remind me what it’s all about: a sycamore helicopter in my pocket.

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