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The County Councils Network's manifesto proposals for children’s social care outlines the need to reform and invest in services to ensure improved lives for young people and reduced costs for local authorities. This includes implementing the recommendations of Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, rebalancing investment towards prevention, and intervening in the care placement market. In education, fundamental reforms are needed to SEND legislation and home to school transport, while strengthening the role and powers of councils in the local education system.

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the number of children in care within county areas in 2023, a record high
primary schools still maintained by counties, 54% of all primary schools in England
the number of young people receiving Education, Health and Care Plans in counties
the projected cost of SEND home to school transport for counties in 2028:  tripling over the course of a decade
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Our priorities

Our Vision

Protecting vulnerable children from harm – or preventing it from happening in the first place – remains one of the most important functions of local government. From children’s centres to crisis care, children’s social care encompasses both prevention and the cure. Through a better resourced and reformed approach to services, councils can help rebalance spending so it more focused on early intervention and family support, in the process reducing the number of children in care while barring down costs.

With a new government on the horizon there needs to be a reset in the Special Education Needs and Disabilities system (SEND), alongside accompanying home to school transport services. Counties want to ensure that every child with SEND gets the right support, working collaboratively with parents, schools and the health service. Through a fully resourced and reformed system that prioritises mainstream provision, prevention, reduces perverse incentives, and promotes collaboration, councils can deliver a financially sustainable system capable of improving outcomes for all.

Underpinning this must be an enhanced role for councils in the education system. While the local authority role has changed dramatically over the past decade, County Councils Network members remain extremely proud  of their track record in supporting schools. With the right powers local authorities can do so much more to ensure every child gets the best possible education.

Priority 1

Children's social care

It has never been more urgent to ensure children’s services are financially sustainable, able to deliver the services that effectively protect children and give young people the best possible start in life. However, the number children referred to children services has spiked in county areas post-pandemic. Consequently, more children are in local authority care than ever before, and county authorities overspent their children’s services budgets by £320m last year: far more than any other service area.

These pressures are not a recent phenomenon, with demand and costs in children’s social care rising dramatically over the last decade. Per-person spend on children’s services for county authorities has virtually doubled – going from £88 per head in 2013/14 to £171 per person in 2023/24: a 93% increase. It is clear that these spending pressures will not ease up over the coming years.  

As a result of these trends, local authorities have had little choice but to reduce spend on preventative and family services. Councils recognise this is a false economy but have had to prioritise spend on crisis care. Compounding these issues is the rising costs of regulatory changes and for care placements in social care, with private providers monopolising the residential homes market for children in care and charging ever-increasing fees to local authorities.

The current government set out a new strategy for children’s social care. Much of it was a step in the right direction, particularly the focus on rebalancing services towards prevention. It also set out proposals on improving the recruitment and retention of the workforce. However, it was accompanied with just £200m in extra funding; falling way short of the £2.6bn advised by the independent review that preceded the strategy.

The County Councils Network’s proposals below set out that an incoming government must give these vital reforms the best possible chance of success by funding them adequately, whilst reviewing other parts of the strategy where there is a concern over their effectiveness. However, the next government must also go further than before and reform the dysfunctional children’s service provider market, including capping fees chargeable, while rebalancing spending towards early intervention and family support to improve outcomes and reduce costs.

Priority 2

Education & home to school transport

Local authorities’ role in the local education system has been significantly reduced by successive governments. Since 2015/16 the percentage of primary schools in county areas that are now academies has risen from 16% to 37%, with the percentage of secondary academies rising from 64% to 80%.

However, as the number of academies has grown, local authorities have evolved their role in relation to education but retain responsibility for a number of important duties related to education. This includes admissions, school places, home to school transport, and oversight of a significant number of remaining maintained schools. There remain 5,632 schools maintained by County Councils Network councils - an average of 144 per authority - with some 54% of all local authority maintained primary schools are within county areas.

It is, nonetheless, school transport which has become one of the biggest budgetary challenges for councils over the last five years. Much of this financial pressure is within transport for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), with costs for councils in county areas doubling to £800m in the last five years alone. If nothing changes, County Councils Network research shows that costs will rise to over £1.1bn by 2028, with the number of children requiring free transport rising from 85,000 this year to 129,000. Rising demand and costs are largely driven by an explosion of Education Health and Care Plans over the last decade, as well as a lack of sufficient specialist school places, increasing use of individual taxis, and parental expectations.

The County Councils Network’s proposals below set out that no stone should be left unturned in delivering a more sustainable SEND travel service, including the consideration of means-testing and changes to the tribunal system, while bringing legislation on mainstream services into the 21st century. In education, an incoming government should support a mixed economy of schools, ceasing the assumption in favour of academisation. Councils should also have a stronger role with enhanced powers in school oversight, school place-planning and in-year admissions, particularly in relation to academies.

Priority 3

Special educational needs & disabilities

It is widely acknowledged that the system for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) is broken. It does not work for children, parents, schools and councils alike. Whilst reforms a decade ago that expanded eligibility for SEND support via Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) were done with the best of intentions, it led to significant unfunded demand and an over reliance on special school provision; with increasing waits for assessments, and little or no tangible improvements in outcomes for children.

Since reforms were introduced in 2014, the number of students on EHCPs has more than doubled nationally from 240,000 in 2015 to 517,000 in 2023 and high-needs expenditure by councils more than doubled to an estimated £10.8bn this year. Over the course of the last Parliament councils across the country have accrued unsustainable high-needs deficits as funding failed to keep pace with demand, reaching an estimated £3.2bn nationally this year. These deficits have only been kept off councils’ balance sheets using a mechanism called the ‘statutory override’.  

This perfect storm of demand and financial challenges has occurred despite all parties acting perfectly rationally - parents naturally wish to secure the best options for their child’s education; schools must balance how best to use their limited resources to address the needs of all students; and councils have a responsibility to spend public money effectively.

The last few years have seen reforms to SEND put forward to address these challenges. Whilst many of these proposals are positive, they fall short of addressing the deep-seated and complex issues that are driving demand and cost, nor will they lead to a more inclusive mainstream education system.

The County Councils Network’s proposals below set out that the incoming government must provide immediate clarity on how it plans to manage councils high-needs deficits in October 2026 when the statutory override is scheduled to end. But eliminating deficits alone will not fundamentally deal with the challenges within the system. The next government must grasp the nettle and set out comprehensive reform to SEND services from the bottom up: including legislative changes and reforms to tribunals, increasing specialist school places for those that need them and, most importantly, supporting mainstream schools to be more inclusive.

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our proposals

Children's Services & Education

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Mainstream Home to School Transport
Bringing home to school transport duties into the 21st century
  • Update the legislative framework around councils’ home to school transport duties (drafted in the 1940s) to reflect the different context for this service in the 2020s, particularly including consideration of reasonable ‘walking distances’ in an age of mass transport.  
  • Review the reasonable expectations of parental responsibility in getting their child to school (e.g. accompanying a child to a bus stop in easy reach of home), making clear the circumstances in which statutory entitlements should apply.
  • Permit local authorities to maintain the duty to support home to school transport through a locally calculated personal travel budget formula that considers distance, public transport infrastructure and the complexity of the child’s needs, including the option to offer parents personal travel budgets for individual children.
  • Target funding for bus improvement schemes at areas with little existing public transport infrastructure and take into account public spending on home to school transport in calculating the potential benefits.
  • Enable an exemption to Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations for vehicles which are only used for home to school transport.
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SEND Home to school transport
Delivering a more sustainable and fair approach to SEND travel services
  • Provide clearer guidance to SEND Tribunals to ensure that rulings on placements cannot be made without full consideration of the relative transport costs or make clear that a Tribunal ruling on a placement does not supersede the local decision on the nearest suitable school for the purposes of transport.
  • Make clear that transport arrangements for children and young people with SEND should be reviewed annually, with a presumption towards encouraging greater independence over time wherever possible.
  • Consider a national means-testing policy so that families above a specified income threshold are required to make a financial contribution to home to school transport, if they choose to use it. The contribution could be determined locally, up to a national ceiling. This would need to be implemented sensitively and progressively, bearing in mind the current cost of living crisis.
  • Take account of potential savings on SEND home to school transport when determining the Return On Investment in SEND support services to make the mainstream school system more inclusive.
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Children’s services reform
Investing in and reforming children’s social care services
  • Retain the core basis of the existing strategy for children’s social care set out in the reform strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love, keeping councils at the heart of delivery.  
  • Commit to investing the £2.6bn recommended by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care to help reverse the rising numbers of children in the care system and make the system sustainable over time.  
  • Specifically invest to support local authorities in rebalancing spending on children’s services towards early intervention and family support to reduce the need for statutory spending on child protection, children in care and wider ‘late intervention’ services over time.
  • Ensure that family support services place equal emphasis on supporting children leaving care and returning to their families safely as in preventing children coming into care in the first place.
  • Work with the local government sector to improve the recruitment and retention of social workers, while reducing reliance on agency staff.
  • Consult widely with the local government sector before proceeding with Regional Care Co-operatives ensuring that they are fit for purpose, particularly noting the need for a consistent means of defining the needs of individual young people across different local authorities in order to match them with the most appropriate placements.
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Care Placements
Tackling high cost placements and reforming the market
  • Put forward a package of reforms to address the dysfunction in the children’s placement market to reduce costs, limit excessive profits and improve outcomes, including;  
    • Price caps based on standard weekly rates assuming no greater than 1:1 staffing except in exceptional prescribed circumstances, supplemented by similarly capped tariffs where additional services or therapeutic interventions are required.
    • Regulation around ‘demand-pricing’ to ensure the public purse is not exploited at times when demand is high and prices are raised without any additionality.
    • Rules around charging for retainers which permit providers to charge when they hold a bed empty – either for a missing child to return or because a good match with a currently placed child is unlikely. However, the tariff should be lower than if a place is occupied, because the empty bed is not having to be staffed.
    • Strict requirements on notice periods to ensure no child should be required to move to a new home at short notice. 28 days should be the standard notice period barring exceptional circumstances.
    • A central placement database system should be established to ensure all ‘available’ placements are logged and visible for any local authority buying places to consult. This will ensure councils are able to see what placements are available without having to consult multiple providers.
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Understanding the impact of planned and future reforms to extend free childcare hours
  • Ensure that local authorities have appropriate resources to shape their local childcare market and offer sufficient choice for parents.  
  • Work with local authorities to review the impact on councils of delivering the extension of the free childcare offer to working parents.
  • Introduce a capital building programme to support the opening and extension across the full range of childcare settings (e.g. nurseries, childminders, school-based provision etc.).
  • Support local authorities in effective recruitment and retention to ensure they are able to provide a sufficient childcare workforce.
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Education & Schools
Enhancing the role and powers of councils in the local education system
  • An incoming government should provide early clarity on the future of schools reform. This should ensure that the presumption in favour of further forced academisation is ended.  
  • Review the role and powers local government has in supporting local education systems, including ensuring councils are fully equipped to execute their duties with regard to school place planning, mandating school attendance, and supporting schools with their wider improvement journeys.
  • Provide councils with more power to direct academies on issues pertinent to the smooth functioning of local education systems e.g. over issues such as in-year admissions, management of SEND pupils, and school expansion (school-place planning).
  • Review the role and resourcing of Virtual Schools to ensure their core purpose of advocating for children in care in the education system is not diluted by the expansion of its remit to support other cohorts.
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Special educational needs & disabilities
Reforming and rebalancing the SEND system to make it more sustainable and improve outcomes
  • Set out a comprehensive reform programme to the SEND system, supporting and resourcing local authorities to effectively address the fundamental challenges placing pressure on the existing SEND system, including:  
    • The new government should review the Children and Families Act 2014 legislation and associated guidance to identify how the SEND system can be brought back into balance.  
    • Articulate an overarching vision for the SEND system, with reform accompanied by clear practice guidance for delivery, underpinned by a new National Framework.
    • Introduce reforms that create a more inclusive school system which supports keeping more children with SEND in mainstream rather than specialist education.
    • Build capacity within the mainstream school system to manage lower level SEND need whilst reforming the statutory duties around Education, Health and Care plans (EHCP), particularly ensuring they are effectively preparing children with SEND for the transition to adulthood.
    • Review the roles and responsibilities of local partners, particularly schools and health agencies in identification, assessment, and early intervention.
    • Enhance the levers enabling councils to shape their local SEND placement market.
    • Support councils to address challenges in the recruitment and retention of the SEND workforce.
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Regulation & unfunded burdens
Ensure that local authorities are funded properly to fulfil their statutory duties, and constraints are taken into account by regulators
  • Review the present range of statutory duties and discretion services expected to be delivered by local authorities related to children’s services, education, and SEND, to assess whether they have enough funds to meet demand.
  • Ensure that any policy or regulatory changes are fully assessed for their financial impact on local authorities – including indirect market costs - and local authorities receive no new unfunded burdens, such as the impact of new regulation around semi-independent placements.
  • Reform Ofsted inspections so that they take into account resource constraints of local authorities when assessing the effectiveness of local authority children’s services and SEND delivery.
  • Establish publicly available reviews of provider behaviour to help stamp out behaviours not currently covered by the regulator, such as:
    • giving notice on a child in anticipation of an expected inspection;
    • giving ultra-short notice on a child’s placement;
    • charging excessively high cost ‘extras’ on which a placement is conditional; or
    • employing unnecessary significant additional staffing which is oppressive to children and their wellbeing.

Our Evidence Base

Research Reports & Key Findings
Future of Children's Social Care report cover

The Future of Children’s Social Care

This report analysed the challenges in the children’s social care sector, setting out a blueprint to create better services for both councils and the thousands of children in care, tipping the scales back towards early intervention and prevention.  

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Key findings:

  • Without changes to the system, the report finds that the number of children in care could grow to 95,000 by 2025, with costs of these young people rising by £2.1bn more that year compared to 2020.
  • If the report’s blueprint and recommendations are enacted, up to 31,000 young people could live safely with their families and communities by the end of 2025, instead of in local authority care.
  • For those currently in local authority care, up to 4,400 fewer young people would be housed inappropriately in residential care, and instead would be living in more family-orientated homes, such as with foster carers.
  • If the system worked better, it would allow social workers to spend a further 25% working directly supporting families, more than an hour extra every week for each child currently in care and on a child protection plan in England.
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Making Travel to School Services Sustainable report cover

Making Travel To School Services Sustainable

This report looks at how demand and expenditure on home to school transport has and will continue to rise. Using extensive data analysis and modelling, it examined the drivers of rising demand and costs, setting out a range of recommendations.

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Key findings:

  • Spending by councils in county areas on school transport is set to reach almost £1.1bn for the first time, with over two-thirds (£720m) dedicated to transporting an increasing number – 85,000 – of SEND pupils to school or college.
  • Modelling within the report predicts that the costs of providing SEND school transport will almost triple for those councils in a decade – from £397m in 2018/19 to £1.125bn in 2027/28 – with the number of children eligible for free school transport increasing 122% over the same period, from 58,000 to 129,000.
  • Over the last five years the number travelling to special schools has increased 24%, with almost 50,000 pupils travelling to these in county areas every year.
  • Around 31,500 SEND pupils are now using cars and taxis as school transport, compared to 31,900 in minibuses. Just 2,200 SEND pupils are transported using traditional buses.
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Demand and Capacity of Homes for Children in Care

This report analysed the cost and implementation implications of proposed Ofsted regulations for semi-independent care settings for young people in care, and makes a series of recommendations for how they can be introduced effectively.  

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Key findings:

  • Some providers could leave the market due to the regulations and extra costs involved. This could lead to a shortage of places in some areas, which could also drive up costs for councils.
  • According to a survey of providers the report found that almost one in five – 19% – of existing beds will not be registered due to the new regulatory system being introduced. This would result in a fall in capacity of 3,676 beds across England.
  • For those providers that intend to register their beds, over nine in ten plan on raising their prices to local authorities as a direct response to cover the additional costs of regulation. Evidence suggests prices could rise between 15-30% over the next three years.
  • As a result of these price increases, rising demand and indirect impacts of regulation on the market, the report estimates the costs of the reforms could be nine times current funding allocations by 2027.
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