[Originally published in CYP Now, November 2017]

Over recent months there has been a big head of steam publicly building up to put pressure on Government to tackle the children’s services funding crisis in the next Budget. LGA has been publicly decrying a £2billion funding gap; ADCS have spoken out forcefully about the role of child poverty in the rising levels of need; the Disabled Children’s Partnership has been campaigning on the largely invisible crisis facing services and support for disabled children and their families; and at Children England we’ve been calling for a Children Act funding formula to avert the dire 2020 cliff-edge for council finances. But whatever our particular angles all sector voices have shared a common core message – money matters and there’s just not enough of it. In the words of the LGA, ‘We cannot carry on like this’.

The Children’s Minister, Robert Goodwill, said again at the NASC Conference in Bournemouth that he is still very much in listening mode. Unfortunately his answer on this topic was that he refuses to ask the Treasury for any more funding until he feels councils are spending their existing funds better. It’s a familiar trope that we’ve heard regularly throughout the last seven years, and not only from political leaders but quite a few of our own sector leaders too. The argument goes along these lines: the problem isn’t Austerity or Whitehall cuts (about which we should stop our futile complaining or campaigning), it’s all down to inefficient councils who don’t know how to spend their money more effectively on what works better. Some councils have managed, so why can’t all of them? Why ‘reward’ poor performance?

Even if this may have sounded a reasonable challenge to council managers and children’s services leaders back in 2010, the repetition of the same tired rhetoric seven years later, and more than 40% cuts down the road, just won’t wash any more. The idea that better children’s service management is the solution to rising child protection referrals, rising hunger, evictions and homeless families, children’s centre closures and all of their ‘upstream’ impacts on record numbers of children coming into care, only needs saying out loud to be shown as evasive and nonsensical.

It requires a near-mystical belief in the magical superpowers of managers (whether operational or strategic) to make an ever-diminishing number of loaves and fishes stretch to an ever-increasing number of starving guests. No honest service manager or strategic leader worth their salt would ever claim to be able to perform such miracles – and none of those I know do. It has taken seven years of valiantly managing cuts before children’s service leaders reached a tipping point of collectively speaking out about funding. The significance of this tipping point seems to be lost on the Children’s Minister – and whether that’s down to his recent entry to the sector, or a dogmatic belief that it really is all a management problem, he has called it entirely wrong.

The worsening funding crisis for children cannot be ‘managed’ away.  It’s not ‘poor performing’ managers who will suffer the impact of Goodwill’s refusal to ask for any more funds, any more than they will be ‘incentivised’ to do better by getting no more funding. It is children and their families who will suffer the impact of his decision, too many of whom are paying the real price of austerity already.