At Barnardo’s we’ve recently been asking ourselves some really difficult questions. What do we really know about the challenges young people face today? What does it mean to be a "vulnerable" child in 2018? And how can we respond faster and smarter?
Not too long ago, we thought we knew what vulnerability looked like. There were clear categories of children at risk, such as those in care, those being abused and neglected, those growing up in severe deprivation and those with disabilities.
But emerging evidence from our front-line services suggests that some young people are actually facing multiple and overlapping dangers. These range from early trauma and neglect to grooming and sexual abuse, through to criminal exploitation, drugs and gangs.
A recent survey found that 60 per cent of our service managers had supported young people involved in criminal activity. Of those, 75 per cent said these young people had been coerced into breaking the law.
These children were not referred to us in relation to criminal activity, which meant those additional needs hadn’t been identified until they were in Barnardo’s care.
So we know young people are facing increasingly complex and overlapping challenges. To explore this further, we’re currently working with a cross-party group of MPs to investigate the link between school exclusions and knife crime.
But across the UK something else is happening too. The nature of vulnerability is changing, and it no longer respects class or privilege. In today’s world any young person can be cyber-bullied or even groomed online by a paedophile posing as a teenage friend.
How do we respond effectively to the growing number of children facing really severe, overlapping challenges and, at the same time, the prospect that any child or young person is at risk of harm, just because they can access the internet?
We must also consider whether the current offer for young people is sufficient to meet their needs.
Between 2010/11 and 2015/16, central government funding for children’s services fell by £2.4bn, 24 per cent, in real terms. The Local Government Association estimates that councils face a further funding gap for children’s services of at least £3bn by 2025.
So the challenges facing children have changed and evolved at the same time as demand for services has increased and resources have become constrained.
At Barnardo’s we’re really clear that we need a radical new approach. The children’s services eco-system has to move away from short-term thinking, siloed decision-making and the traditional transactional relationships that are underpinned by a competitive scramble, towards long-term, sustained interventions that can actually transform the life chances of the most vulnerable children in our society.
To drive this new way of thinking and acting, we’re developing strategic partnerships. We are helping to bring together partners including national government, local authorities, the police, the NHS and, crucially, families and communities to co-design, co-create and co-deliver the services children really need, with a strong emphasis on prevention.
In Newport, Barnardo’s is working in a long-term partnership with the council to deliver sustainable, transformative change for vulnerable children. An independent evaluation found that 48 per cent of all families supported had achieved very positive outcomes through successful early intervention. The evaluation also found an average cost-benefit ratio of approximately £31 for every £1 spent on the service overall.
Barnardo’s is developing similar partnerships around the country. Our aim is not just to improve support for children today, but also to achieve systems change so that we can step in even earlier and deliver even better outcomes for more children tomorrow.
No single agency has all the answers, but with bold and brave thinking, and embracing our interdependence along the way, we have a chance. Anything less simply won’t work.
Javed Khan is the chief executive of Barnardo’s