They are in danger of becoming the long-term victims of Covid-19 unless the government takes urgent action to address the impacts of the virus and the inequalities it has laid bare.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has just published a discussion paper, Building a Country that Works for all Children Post Covid-19, which articulates the virus’ impact on childhoods. It attempts to put children’s experiences centre stage, in a way that has been sorely lacking on the part of national politicians until recently.
ADCS believes the social impact of Covid-19 must be viewed alongside its impact on health; this is the only way to truly “level up” society. Children must be a priority in national recovery planning. I also want their important contribution to their communities and wider society to be recognised and cross-government accountability for how policies affect them.
Children’s experiences of lockdown will vary. Some will have found extra time with their family beneficial, but for others it will have been a scary, confusing or even traumatic experience. It is exacerbating the challenges many children and families face in terms of job losses, overcrowding, access to technology and safe places to play outside.
The result is a further widening attainment gap and more families plunged into poverty. At the same time, the ability to support children and families when they need it most is being compromised by significantly underfunded children’s services and local government. In children’s services, an estimated £3.1bn is needed by 2025 just to maintain pre-coronavirus levels of service. This does not consider the additional strain on council finances at this time, as income streams reduce, expenditure increases and budgets must be balanced.
Three injections of emergency funding announced by central government will help councils with their response to Covid-19, but a sustainable financial settlement is needed.
As lockdown eases, many challenges lie ahead, and the children’s services workforce is fatigued. Referrals fell during lockdown but are picking up again. Families we have never seen before are coming to our attention because of job losses but also domestic abuse and neglect, and already vulnerable families are facing additional challenges.
The biggest challenge for us as leaders of children’s services is just around the corner – the peak of demand for our services is only just beginning, and this is when we will need the most financial support from government.
Our new paper sets out what we need to support a reset of children’s services, including a review of responses to the first phase of the pandemic to inform what comes next.
The Department for Education should articulate the impact of Covid-19 on childhood across government and lead the charge for securing sufficient resources for children’s services in the forthcoming spending review. Without a sustainable long-term funding settlement that enables investment in children’s futures, further cuts to services that help children and families before they reach crisis point are likely.
The paper reinforces the importance of levelling up the inequalities faced by children without delay and calls on government to implement several recommendations from Sir Michael Marmot’s review of health equity in England, including the launch of an ambitious health inequalities strategy, led by the prime minister and a cabinet-level cross-departmental committee.
Building a country that works for all children is even more necessary in a world with Covid-19; a country that gives families the economic means to succeed and in which public services are properly funded to help them flourish. The NHS has received a pledge of unlimited funds to tackle the spread of Covid-19, but the impact of the virus continues to be felt in communities across the country, and other public services leading the response need more support. This government has the opportunity to ensure children and communities thrive, and don’t just survive, in a post-coronavirus world. It shouldn’t squander it.