Children and Families budget presentation
- Meeting of Budget and Finance Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Monday 2 December 2013 7.00 pm (Item 4.)
The Acting Director of Children and Families will be attending the meeting to present to Members the current budget issues facing this service.
Sara Williams (Interim Director of Children and Families) gave a presentation on the Children and Families budget. She began by informing members that from the total Children and Families budget of £87.7m, approximately half came from central funds, whilst the rest came from the Dedicated Schools Grant. Sara Williams referred to services run under Children and Families and advised that it employed 764 permanent staff, although a significant number were part time. There were also a number of vacancies, currently at 168, which were being filled by temporary staff until permanent appointments had been made. Sara Williams advised that a recruitment campaign was underway targeting those who may be interested in working in a challenging, but interesting environment such as Brent. Although there was a large number of graduate social workers in the employment market, the borough needed experienced social workers because of the nature of the environment. Agency staff were also being encouraged to become permanent staff but success in this area was limited. Sara Williams referred to the current financial position and explained that overspend forecast for 2013/14 was the worst case scenario and was mainly attributable to pressures from in year growth of school pupil numbers, which were greater than anticipated, and redundancy costs in the schools budget and Children’s Placements budget. However, the overspend forecast for Children’s Placements was much improved from previous years. Members then noted the breakdown of individual service spends and the predicted forecast variances, if any. Sara Williams then outlined the savings found to date for the years 2010/11, 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14 respectively. With regard to unit cost trends in residential care, these continued to fall in 2013/14 as well as the number of looked after children (LAC) and the council was also working with the West London Alliance (WLA) to commission higher quality LAC places. Fostering placements costs for 2013/14 were due to remain the same as the previous year, despite higher placement numbers.
Sara Williams then covered the maintained schools budget, which again had fallen in 2013/14 compared to the previous year. This was partly attributable to a reduction in maintained schools as some schools converted to academy status. The largest sector of the budget was for primary schools and pupil numbers determined the allocation from central Government. Sara Williams referred to the Government’s recent announcement about free school lunches being provided to every child in Key Stage One at state-funded schools and expressed concerns that this would be under-funded.
Sara Williams then commented on future challenges for Children and Families. This included increasing numbers of children and high levels of need. Regulatory regimes also created pressures both in terms of running services and on budgets and this would be exacerbated by new regimes for children with disabilities and special educational needs (SEN). Funding to support education functions would also be reduced, whilst strong arguments needed to be provided to justify early intervention, such as troubled families and there was a need to put together sustainable plans.
During members’ discussions, further details of the work of the School Improvement Services and how pupil numbers were calculated was requested, including whether this included children currently without a school place. In relation to academies, it was asked to what extent did the council have control over how they were staffed. Information on future arrangements for SEN was requested and comparisons with boroughs of similar profile with regard to LAC was sought. In addition, it was asked whether the council continued to pay the costs of a LAC child when away from the borough.
In reply to the queries raised by members, Sara Williams explained that School Improvement Services was a small team that undertook monitoring of schools’ performance and looked at data to identify any struggling schools and to consider what measures were needed to address this. She advised that the council’s powers were limited concerning the staffing of academies, however every effort was made to ensure high standards. Sara Williams added that all with the exception of one primary school in Brent had experienced an improvement in their performance over the last year. Sara Williams advised that pupil numbers were based on the October 2013 pupil count and this would not be refreshed in January 2014, however even if a large number of pupils enrolled at schools during the school year, the council would still need to fund this and this would increase pressure on the budget. Members noted that every effort was made to place every child in school by October. Sara Williams confirmed that children without a school place were not included in the total pupil numbers.
Turing to SEN, Sara Williams advised that the council was looking at new ways of providing this service and it was not always in the pupil’s best interest to be referred fully to the SEN service. Sara Williams advised that there relatively few LAC children in Brent compared to boroughs with similar profiles, with others such as the London Borough of Ealing having far higher LAC numbers. However, she added that the most significant element was the practice used by each borough in how they managed LAC children and this helped make comparisons more useful. The committee heard that when a child moved to a different area, the host local authority would bear the costs, however the child’s previous local authority, including both from children and families and housing would pass on the relevant information to ensure an appropriate level of safeguarding was provided. The Educational Welfare Group would also play a role in ensuring the child was given a school place.
The Chair commented that it was absurd and unfair that the council could not include children without a school place in the total pupil numbers and she also stated that despite the best efforts of local authorities, contact with LAC children and the appropriate supervision could sometimes be lost when they moved to another area.