Judge us on how we deal with the most vulnerable

Budget cuts risk us facing a lost generation

Demand for children's services is at its highest since 1981. Picture: Esme Allen

COUNCILS in Scotland are currently deliberating on setting their budgets for the coming financial year, and at the forefront of everyone’s minds is one thing – to make savings.

Scottish Government funding for Scotland’s 32 councils is set to be slashed for the next two years, with a real-terms reduction of £624m by 2015-16, a real concern when you take into consideration the unprecedented challenges already faced by the children’s services sector.

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As a society, we should be judged on how we deal with the most vulnerable, such as our children and young people, and this is why we have launched a campaign to protect services for children and young people.

Demand for children’s services is at its highest since 1981, with latest figures showing 16,248 children are currently looked after by local authorities, a figure that has increased each year since 2001. In addition, there has been a fourfold increase of those with additional support needs in Scotland since 2002, now standing at 118,034.

Such a dramatic increase in numbers has led to increased pressure on resources. Pupils with additional support needs, such as autism and ADHD, have a considerably higher exclusion rate than the rest of the pupil population and require greater support. There is also an increased burden on local authorities as the number of looked-after children increases.

At the same time, local authorities have to achieve more with less, and this serves only to increase the barriers that children’s services departments face in delivering the best outcomes for children and young people.

However, without adequate resourcing, we face a lost generation of young people whose cost to society in the longer term will far outweigh any potential public sector cuts.

Already, we are hearing that proposed cuts to school spending will hit vulnerable Edinburgh pupils with special needs twice as hard as those without, according to critics. In addition to a £600,000 cut from the proposed budget for additional support needs, a further £460,000 in savings is to be achieved through staffing cuts and other changes in IT assistance for those in this category. This cannot be anything but damaging to these young people and we are hearing the same story across the country.

In this context, we would warn councils of the dangers of cutting the budget for those with additional support needs and care, thereby leaving themselves open to a flood of tribunals for failing to provide adequate support under additional support needs legislation.

Children in Scotland highlighted in a recent report that although the Scottish Government has given priority to increasing the attainment of Scotland’s poorest children, there may be a significant gap between national aspirations and local reality. The same report notes that public sector cuts have already begun to affect vulnerable children and families in Scotland, and further potential cuts will have a cumulative effect, with some families experiencing changes to multiple services, many of whom have already been impacted by measures such as the Welfare Reform Bill.

In another example, Scotland’s young care leavers already languish at the bottom of the leagues when it comes to health, education, crime and employment outcomes. They are more likely to die prematurely, be unemployed, be addicted to drugs or alcohol and be imprisoned.

These vulnerable young people rely upon the stability and trust offered by children’s services during the transition from young person to adult and we must protect this fundamental right.

Children’s services are often the lifeline for some of Scotland’s most vulnerable families and young people, and the looming danger of further cuts to an already overstretched budget is simply not an option.

As a coalition, we believe that although these threats are pretty formidable, they present councils with a unique opportunity and potential catalyst to achieve effective and sustainable change.

Now is an excellent opportunity for radical public service reform, with the better integration of public services locally and promoting the development of effective strategic partnerships and innovative service solutions between local authorities and service providers, such as third sector and independent organisations.

Service providers have a key role to play, especially during a period of economic austerity. Through greater involvement in service design and delivery, in partnership with local authorities, limited financial resources can be maximised to deliver the best for Scotland’s most vulnerable young people.

The clock is ticking and the decisions councils make in their forthcoming budgets will have a major impact on the future for children and young people across our country. Let’s not turn our back on them.

n Stuart Jacob is director of Falkland House School, representing the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition