Norfolk County Council’s tricky feat of saving cash and improving children’s services
- Credit: Archant Norfolk 2010
With the government increasing pressure on Norfolk County Council over education and child safeguarding, the council is battling to prove it can rapidly turn things around. If it fails, ministers could strip it of its powers.
This is the stark situation faced by the council's Children's Services Department as it is told to take its share of pain in tackling the authority's projected £189m funding shortfall over the next three years.
The trick the department is trying to pull off is to make the twin aims of improving the services under the microscope and saving money work together, rather pull in opposite directions.
The first thing council bosses are keen to stress is what they are NOT doing.
When the 'rainbow alliance' administration came into being after May's election, it said it would make the troubled department a priority, and in August it announced a £16.5m package which included 40 new social workers and more support to help schools improve. The council says this money is not touched by the cuts.
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And while many of the cuts may be unpalatable for the councillors proposing them, they justify them as preventing even worse alternatives, such as cutting children's centres.
By far the biggest proposed saving – more than 10pc of the council's total cuts package – aims to save money and improve the service by reducing the number of children coming into care.
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The average cost of looking after a child is £46,307, and if the council achieved the hoped-for £17.6m saving then the number of looked after children would fall from 1,077 in 2012-13 to 770 over the next three years.
James Joyce, cabinet member of safeguarding children, said: 'We have got 1,100 looked after children at the moment, and that's a lot higher than an average county like us.
'They are right to be looked after, but the criticism of Ofsted was that maybe they should not have got to that stage. If you get the early intervention, the numbers should come down.'
He said it would only save huge amounts of money, but also stop problems getting worse and allow more families to stay together.
Sheila Lock, interim director of children's services, added: 'If a child is in need of care, they will get care. It's important to make that point.'
Another big contribution to the cuts package is the £2.67m proposal to reduce free training for early years and childcare providers who are rated 'good' or 'outstanding', but continue it for those in need of improvement.
Perhaps the most controversial proposal is to revisit an issue which previously brought hundreds of student protestors on to the streets, forcing council U-turns.
The aim is to reduce, but not eliminate, the transport subsidy for students aged 16-19. The cost of a travel pass would rise from £468 to £800-850 for most students, while those on low incomes would see theirs go up from £351 to £600-638.
Mick Castle, cabinet member for schools, said: 'It's not a great message to parents out there, but all we can say is that we are aiming to keep support, but it will be reduced.'
Asked whether the increased costs could prevent some students going to college, he said: 'If you are in a situation where transport costs are an issue, it could impact, but it's one of the terrible things where, with the £189m we have to find, if we want to keep the children's centres going, something has to give.'
School transport for younger students is also in the firing line, with a possible £330,000 saving by improving footpaths and cycle ways so fewer children need school transport, cutting school buses by encouraging more pupils to use public buses, and offering high school students a £200 cycle allowance if they give up their seat on the school bus.
Another area where the council hopes financial savings and a better service will go hand in hand is in efforts to reduce transport costs for children with special educational needs. It currently provides free transport for about 1,000 disabled children to travel to council establishments, and 350 who attend non-council schools, some having to travel long distances.
The council hopes that, by creating more places in the county, it could save £1m in transport costs. Mr Castle said: 'It's not just saving money, it's giving these families an option close to home. It's good news twice over.'
CROSSING PATROLS, SCHOOL SERVICES AND YOUTH CRIME
• An emotive proposal is to cut funding for the council's 114 school crossing patrols, with a potential saving of £300,000 by 2016-17. The council has no legal duty to provide the patrols, but where they exist it has to ensure their safe running, so its responsibilities include monitoring crossing patrol sites, providing a uniform, and training. The council is consulting on four alternatives, including community groups and town and parish councils paying for them, asking volunteers to run them, asking businesses to sponsor them, or getting schools to fund them. Mick Castle, cabinet member for schools, said: 'We want to see these crossing patrols continue in some form, but we are consulting on the basis that is might change.'
• Proposals to stop the council's contribution to various school services, including those for music, healthy schools and teacher recruitment, aim to save another £689,000. It is another potentially-controversial choice, and Mr Castle admitted: 'The last time we consulted on this there was a big swell of opposition. We have to listen to what the public has to say, but it's one of those non-statutory things.' The music service provides individual lessons to 4,220 pupils, and teaches 4,753 pupils in whole classes in 246 schools. The consultation asks people's views on stopping all funding for these services, or seeing if they can develop them and sell them to schools.
• There are also two proposals which could have an impact on youth crime and anti-social behaviour. Funding for restorative approaches, which try to repair harm done to relationships and people, rather than punishing or blaming them, could be cut by £160,000. The service is delivered with many other partners, including police, magistrates and probation, and the proposed cut could mean schools and voluntary groups could have to pay for training in restorative approaches. There could also be a £250,000 cut in funding for the Youth Offending Team, which prevents young people offending or being involved in anti-social behaviour, and £250,000 for the Drug and Alcohol Partnership. There will also be another consultation in the future on the implications of the Children and Families Bill going through Parliament, which could affect services for children with special educational needs, with an estimated £1.9m saving.