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Wed, 06 Jul 22 11:59

Levelling up

Early this year the government is set to publish its long awaited Levelling Up White Paper - it may even be published by the time you read this. Levelling up will mean many things to different people and we of course will have our own priority areas. As a Director of Children’s Services, I see first-hand the impact of poverty and inequality on children and their outcomes. The Levelling Up White Paper presents an ideal opportunity to address these issues which will have only been worsened by the pandemic.

For children’s services, levelling up must involve investment in the variety of services that support children but also investment in children and families themselves. Over 4 million children in the UK are currently living in poverty, 75% of whom in working families. If we are to give these children the best start in life, we need to begin with tackling the causes of child poverty and be ambitious for them. During the early stages of the pandemic, the government recognised and responded to some of the obstacles that children living in poverty face when schools were closed to all but a small number. Laptops were ordered and children were given access to free broadband to help them learn at home. The announcements were welcomed at the time, but it is disappointing that these actions were not built upon with other more tangible initiatives to try and tackle the rising number of children living in poverty. I believe that the levelling up agenda provides us with the opportunity to do just that, but this relies on government committing to developing a cross-departmental strategy to reduce and then end child poverty. It is, of course, the responsibility of all government departments to drive levelling up, not just the department that is leading the white paper.

The greatest opportunities to make a real and tangible difference to children’s outcomes occur when they are very young. We know that growing up experiencing material hardship such as food insecurity and poor-quality housing can have a lifelong impact on health and development. Investment in the government’s flagship free childcare policy has reached £3.5 billion in each of the past three years, yet the rates paid to providers do not guarantee quality and emerging evidence suggests the 30-hour offer may in fact entrench disadvantage by displacing children from non-working families who qualify for fewer hours. This ongoing focus on childcare rather than developing high quality early education does seem somewhat at odds with the social mobility agenda. We need to work with children and families who are at risk of poor outcomes at the earliest possible stage, yet our spending and interventions remain skewed towards reactive services despite evidence that early help and support can improve children’s health, development and life chances.

Within local authority children’s services there is also much we can do. But without the funding to intervene early and support children before problems escalate, we have very little chance to reverse these trends. Before the pandemic, a decade of austerity left local government funding in a parlous state and children’s services teetering on the edge of becoming a ‘blue light’ service. Tough decisions have had to be made about how funding is allocated and often the services most at risk are those addressing the root causes of problems children and their families face before they reach crisis point. There is also a role for health services who have a vital role in ensuring better access to services at the earliest point. Poor mental health can have a devastating and lifelong impact on children and young people, yet all too often children experience difficulties in accessing services, wait months for support and reach crisis point in the process.

This does nothing to reduce future demand, is more expensive in the long term and leads to poorer outcomes. The government must invest in the type of preventative services that reduce demand and improve lives. Schools, early years and further education settings are essential parts of the preventative agenda and during the pandemic demonstrated the potential for future ways of working and the impact we have when working in flexible partnership.

The pandemic adds a new sense of urgency to the growing calls for concerted action on child poverty and to level up society. The efforts of a whole host of campaigners and groups have kept this issue high on the agenda and as we continue to collectively focus on recovery, this offers the government an opportunity to turbo charge its levelling up efforts. Whilst education is of course important, the social and emotional conditions that support children to engage in learning and thrive must also be in place.

Charlotte Ramsden, ADCS President 21/22

This column first appeared in the MJ

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