More vulnerable children than ever now need crisis support, after councils were forced to halve spending on services which help prevent them coming to harm. 

Over the 10 years between 2010-11 and 2020-21, investment in early intervention support by councils in England fell from £3.8 billion to £1.9bn, according to a new Pro Bono Economics report commissioned by a coalition of leading children’s charities. 

The research found dwindling funding for early support services – ranging from children’s centres and youth clubs, to targeted support with issues like drug and alcohol misuse - means families miss out on getting help early enough to stop problems spiralling out of control. 

This has created a vicious cycle, in which councils are forced to spend more on costly crisis support, leaving more children and young people exposed to risks like exploitation, neglect and mental ill-health. 

The report, titled Stopping the spiral: Children and young people’s services spending 2010-11 to 2020-21, found spending on crisis and late intervention services soared by more than a third (37%) over the decade, from £6bn to £8.2bn. This was fuelled by a 24% rise in the number of children in care to almost 80,000, costing an extra £1.3bn. Four-fifths (80.5%) of local authority children’s social care spending went towards these services, which are more likely to be reacting to harm and which councils have a legal requirement to deliver, up from just 58% in 2010-11. 

The PBE analysis estimates that government funding available to councils for children’s services fell by 22% from £10.4bn to £8.1bn between 2010-11 and 2020-21, with the poorest local authority areas – where children’s and families’ needs may be greatest - often forced to make the biggest cuts to early support services. In these areas, early intervention spending per child was reduced by 61% on average, while 25% more was spent on late intervention. The West Midlands (66%) and North East (63%) faced the biggest falls in spending on early support per child over the decade, with the East Midlands (59%) and North West (54%) not far behind. 

The coalition of charities, comprised of The Children’s Society, Action for Children, Barnardo’s, National Children’s Bureau and the NSPCC, are calling for the next prime minister to invest £2.6bn in children’s social care, as an absolute minimum, as recommended by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. 

They say that while investment is needed everywhere, there is a particular need for deprived areas to be given targeted funding - with the cost of living crisis and increasing numbers of children and families experiencing poverty making this particularly pressing. The care review recommends new investment from 2023-24, but the charities say funding is urgently needed now to help the rising numbers of children requiring support and to counter the financial crisis facing councils. 

The charities are calling for local authorities to be awarded extra funding in the next prime minister’s first Budget - including money to open more family hubs, offering vital early support for children of all ages and their families. The children’s social care review warned that if current trends continue, 100,000 children could be in care by 2032, with costs to stretched councils rising from £10bn a year to £15bn. 

Spending on children’s social care plummeted by £249 million over the decade, a 2.4% fall, despite rising numbers of vulnerable young people. Overall, councils spent on average £36 less on each young person - £580 in 2020-21, compared to £616 in 2010-11. 

Matt Whittaker, CEO of Pro Bono Economics, said:  

“The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care rightly called for a ‘radical reset’ to shift provision away from crisis management and towards preventative support. Our new analysis highlights the urgency with which a reset is required. Under sustained financial pressures, too many councils have opted to cut back on early intervention services, such as Sure Start children’s centres. 

“Yet this often means they must spend more further down the line on taking children in to care and other crisis measures. This is a false economy which lets down the thousands of children at the sharp end of the care system and the taxpayer. It’s a lose-lose situation born out of a short-termist approach to local government financing.” 

Josh MacAlister, Chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, said 

“These worrying figures support my call for a radical reset of the system to shift the focus towards intensive earlier support for families. It’s crucial that reform comes with the investment needed to boost support for families so that more children can grow up in loving families and that the care system can provide the same foundations. 

“Tinkering at the edges while continuing to pour money into a crumbling system is unsustainable and it’s vital that the next prime minister seizes this opportunity to make a difference to the lives of children and families, now and in the future.” 

Mark Russell, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, said 

“Behind these shocking figures, which saw spending on services for young people fall by three-quarters from £1.3bn to £300m, are children who have missed out on vital early support, many of whom end up in care.  

“Young people have told us they felt they needed to get hurt or harm someone in order be taken seriously.   

“It’s a big concern that children in deprived areas, where needs may be greatest, are often among those least likely to get help before problems spiral out of control. 

“If ministers are serious about ‘levelling up’ they must better target funding to the areas that need it most. But councils everywhere have struggled amid government funding cuts, and this is why we are calling on whoever becomes the next prime minister to ensure children’s services teams across the country get the extra funding they desperately need, sooner not later.” 

Read the full report