There is a crisis in funding. But there's a crisis of policy going on, too. The result is that we are creating a brutal environment for children, families, and all of us work in the field. We're also constantly depressed by a sense of a system close to collapse. Take spending on children with high levels of special educational need and disability as an example.
Councils on the verge of bankruptcy
Parents (rightly) expect their children's needs to be met by local services. There are more children with disabilities and special needs in schools, partly as a result of much better survival rates of premature and unwell babies. As a result, the number of parents making formal appeals, because they judge that their children's needs are not being adequately met, is growing fast. Increasing numbers of parents win these cases. More financial pressure is put on local authorities. This means that, as the Guardian recently reported, some councils are now on the verge of bankruptcy.
Despite the significant increases in spending, parents feel let down and, in some cases, that the whole system simply builds wall after wall to shut them out.
The schools funding crisis
In schools, there also a funding crisis. Newspapers report that parents are being asked to fundraise for basic supplies like pens, pencils and toilet paper. Several thousand school headteachers even marched on Downing Street, their anger cloaked by their impeccable manners.
Nursery schools: "warm words will not pay the bills"
Nursery Schools are particularly vulnerable, as there is only a year and a bit of further guaranteed funding from the government. Ministers have stated their support for nursery schools and urged local councils not to make any hasty decisions about closing them down. But, as a cross-party group of 71 MPs recently argued in a letter to the Department for Education, "warm words will not pay the bills"
Meanwhile, services for the most vulnerable children are also increasingly stretched, with the BBC reporting that child protection services are near crisis as demand rises. Calls to social services by people worried about children's safety and welfare have increased hugely, and every year there are more investigations to check whether children are safe. There are many more multi-agency child protection plans now than there were a decade ago.
Shocked by the size of the budget for vulnerable children
So, it didn't come as a surprise to me when my local council (Tower Hamlets in East London) wrote to all its residents to tell us that they are struggling to manage financially. But, even as someone working in education, I was shocked by the size of their budget for vulnerable children, and the large proportion of overall council spending it represents.
It's hardly surprising that expenditure across the country on the most vulnerable children is increasing so fast. Private companies are charging councils more than £7,000 per week for residential placements. There is such a shortage of specialist places for the most vulnerable children that their cases are actually posted online on a kind of auction site, with companies bidding for their care. It's a situation which a care worker told the Guardian is like "“legalised trafficking" -
“Children are cattle, they are there to fill a spot. You get a kid from the north, the home cannot control the kid, so they bring them down to a different house. That child cannot be controlled at that house so they send them elsewhere, The worse off the kid is, the more money they get, and the more money they get, they will push other children out.”
In brief, we have ended up in in an awful place. Public and political concern, arising out of tragic cases like those of Baby P and Anna Climbie, results in ever-more referrals to social services. Council heads of Children's Services, seeing the summary sacking of Sharon Shoesmith following the awful death of Baby P, take every step possible to reduce the risk of a recurrence. That means more investigations, more Child Protection Plans, and more children taken into care - often at huge cost.
The aims of the new Code of Practice for children with special educational needs and disabilities, introduced in 2014, are laudable. But the Code was introduced without proper scoping of its costs or adequate additional funding. So it has led to more and more expenditure - and less and less satisfaction on the part of parents and schools.
Schools have largely been protected from the sorts of cuts made to other public services. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that per-pupil spending has increased hugely in recent years. Yet, with rising costs and pressures, and as spend by pupil dips, school leaders and teachers have a quite genuine sense of crisis.
We surely cannot go on like this. We need a new strategy that sets out more clearly what we want for children, and how we are going to pay the bills. That will take a lot of time, and a lot of political goodwill, and a lot of compromise. All things we're currently short of.
Here are a few further thoughts, perhaps for the shorter term.
Firstly, we need to stop private companies from holding Children's Services to ransom by creating bidding wars that significantly increase the costs of care. I would feel much more comfortable knowing that the most vulnerable children were in well-regulated, properly funded, council-run facilities. Costs need to be capped, and children's best interests needs to be served.
Secondly, we need brave moral and political leadership of child protection. We need to focus resources on minimising risks to children - not on professionals covering each other's backs. We need much better, and quicker, early intervention so that small problems don't blow up into risky situations for children. A more supportive, child-focussed system that makes better assessments of risk would surely be preferable to the ever-escalating number of statutory investigations and children being placed in care.
Thirdly, schools need some stability. They urgently need protection from ever-rising pension costs and other drains like the Apprenticeship Levy. Then we all need to hold a more open discussion about what we want from our schools, and how we will pay for it. Do we really want to give every single infant child a free lunch at school, even if their parents are high-earners? Surely there are significant savings we could make if we could retain more of the teachers we train? Instead, we suffer from a punishing cycle of investing time and money in training and support, only to see a third of all teachers leave the profession within 5 years. Politically-driven initiatives, like free schools and the expansion of the academies programme from its original aim of improving a small number of historically-failing schools into a huge national programme, have proved hugely costly. The benefits claimed do not justify the money spent. As the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, recently argued, spending over a billion pounds on interactive whiteboards hasn't led to any significant improvements in teaching and learning.
As Dylan Wiliam has demonstrated, we should stop seeking solutions to the problems of education through permanent revolution, or the deployment of magical technological fixes. We would do better to focus systematically on improving teaching and learning. Headteachers and others can't do that if they aren't fretting over the budget for pencils and toilet paper.
We have a funding crisis across children's services. But it isn't just a funding crisis: it's a crisis of policy, too.
Nursery schools make up a fraction of the overall education budget, so my final plea is for them. A long-term solution to their funding is needed urgently. That settlement will hardly even be a little blip in the big picture of what we spend on schools, and children overall. Nursery schools have the highest numbers of children with specials needs and disabilities on their roll of any early years providers. It's chastening to note that 41% of families who have a child with a disability find themselves unable to access the 15 hours of free early education and childcare they are, on paper, entitled to. If nursery schools aren't protected, there's going to be a whole new group of vulnerable children without the provision they need. It's time to act now.