Spend now, or regret later

Many people see prevention as the solution in children’s services because it is cheap in the short term and can save money in the future, but they might be wrong.

If a child receives targeted and expensive support early, the cost may end up being 40 per cent cheaper in the long term.

On occasions, a local council has no choice but to look after a child in order to meet its safeguarding responsibilities and the child’s needs. However, in many cases it is a matter of practitioner’s judgement whether lighter touch support, also referred to as ‘child in need’ support, would be appropriate, for example as a temporary solution before deciding that ‘looked after’ support is definitely required.

The grey line between ‘looked after’ and ‘child in need’ is important because it separates cheaper from more expensive types of support.

Looked after support is more targeted and requires greater number of practitioner hours. In round numbers, our recent report estimated that this type of support costs on average £43,000 per child, per year, and in many cases goes up to £50,000. In contrast, child in need support is lighter touch, and typically involves a lower number of practitioner hours. This type of support costs on average £10,000 per child, per year.

Safeguarding responsibilities permitting, it makes sense to delay the use of looked after child support. For example, providing child in need support for four years (£10,000 * 4 = £40,000) is cheaper than providing looked after support for just one year (£43,000).

But what if lighter touch support does not work? My answer is that it can make matters worse and increase costs.

The chart below sets out a scenario where a local council provides child in need support for four years, followed by two years of looked after support at the expensive end: £50,000

This scenario may apply to a case where professional judgement concluded that child in need support would be appropriate to start with, but this decision resulted in certain needs not being fully addressed at the right time, and escalating rapidly to the expensive end of looked after support.

For example, a case of exposure to cannabis consumption without serious safeguarding concerns may receive child in need support for some years, and eventually require more targeted support because the child starts to use substances and parental supervision becomes inadequate.

In this scenario, the total cost after six years is £140,000.

In contrast, the cost of another scenario where the two years of looked after support are provided to start with is £86,000, or 39 per cent lower. Here, the greater number of practitioner hours fully addresses the child’s needs without needing any support afterwards.

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The information in the public domain does not allow us to say whether these two scenarios are common in reality. I believe that both are possible and challenge those who assume that lighter touch support now will result in lower costs in the long term.

Our recent report ‘Children’s services: spending and delivery’ in partnership with the Early Intervention Foundation for the Department for Education is available here

If you have taken the time to read this blog, please leave comment with your views.