More children at risk as councils forced to halve spending on early support

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 ten years between 2010/11 and 2020/21, investment in early intervention support by councils in England fell from £3.8bn to £1.9bn (50%) according to a new report commissioned by The Children’s Society, Action for Children, Barnardo’s, National Children’s Bureau and the NSPCC.

The coalition of charities says councils have struggled with the impact of funding cuts, with many of the poorest areas hardest hit.

The research, by Pro Bono Economics, 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, where 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.

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 (74%) 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 to 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.”

The report, Stopping the Spiral, 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 analysis by Pro Bono Economics 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 is 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 needing support and counter the financial crisis facing councils.

They 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.

Imran Hussain, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action for Children, said: “Across political divides there has been recognition of the value to communities and the public purse of investing in services that help individuals and families early, before more serious and more costly problems develop.

“Town halls are being placed in an impossible position by decisions made in Whitehall. The Government has to give local authorities the resources they need to invest in preventative services to stem the tide of children coming to harm before they’re helped.”

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.” Spending on children’s social care plummeted by £249m 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.

Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has provided a vision for strengthening families based on the premise of taking action early to prevent children from reaching harm. But this blueprint cannot succeed unless the Government urgently allocates money in the Autumn budget and beyond to reverse the trends of the last decade.

“Our research clearly shows that Government funding for children’s social care has fallen away, forcing councils to spend less on early help, abandoning families to slide further into crisis. We call on leaders from national and local government to seize this moment to transform children’s lives for the better and invest in prevention."

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 into 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.”

Sir Peter Wanless, CEO of the NSPCC, said: “Given the political turmoil at the moment it is crucial that Government – and in particular the new Education Secretary – does not lose focus on children and the vital role children’s services play in keeping them safe.

“For far too long local authorities have been struggling to meet the growing need for children’s social care, with first the care review and now the Stopping the Spiral report showing how the system is increasingly skewed towards crisis intervention.

“With the cost-of-living crisis likely to get worse impacting more children and families and putting councils under further strain, it is vital this funding gap is addressed sooner rather than later through significant and sustained Government investment and support.”

Barnardo's Chief Executive, Lynn Perry MBE, said: "Far too often families reach crisis point before they can access support and our new research shows the situation is getting worse every year.

“It is critical that vulnerable children can access the right services at the right time, to help reduce the numbers going into local authority care, and improve their chance of gaining good qualifications, staying healthy, and moving into employment.

“Providing the funding necessary so that children and families can access support early must be a key focus for the next Prime Minister, to improve their life chances and achieve longer-term savings for the Treasury.”


  • All figures for local authority spending and government funding are real terms figures reflecting 2020/21 prices.
  • Services offered by family hubs could include (but are not limited to): youth services, young people’s advocacy and advice services, counselling and psychological therapies, early help and trauma support, mental health support and close partnership working with drop-in hubs offering children early support with their well-being in areas which have this service.
  • After a low point of £9.4 billion in 2016-17, total children’s services spending recovered to reach £10.2 billion in 2020-21 – an 8% increase. However, the majority of both overall spending and recent increases has been focused on late intervention services.
  • All figures were taken from official Department for Education statistics and the annual returns that local authorities make on spending to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
  • The estimate of government funding available to councils for children’s services is calculated by taking 2010/11 as a ‘baseline’ year. The formula used assumes that spending on children’s services in that year was equivalent to the funding available and that this funding has subsequently moved in line with total core funding for each local authority.
  • The deprivation level of a local authority is based on the ranking published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in 2019. In that study, each local authority was assessed using 39 different indicators across seven key dimensions of deprivation that include: income, employment, education, health, crime access to housing and services and the living environment. Statistical techniques were used to weight the data for each indicator to estimate an overall measure of deprivation for the local authority – this was then used to rank the relative levels of deprivation for each, with Pro Bono Economics grouping the local authorities into quintiles reflecting their levels of deprivation. The ‘poorest’ local authorities referred to above are among the 20% with the highest levels of deprivation. Full details are available in their technical report.