At present it is difficult to understand how much is spent on what, to achieve what outcomes.

Nationally reported data for each local authority reveals that spend on children’s services per child varies significantly between authorities, from £292 to £1,254 (based on revenue outturn returns for FY16/17 and the local population aged 0-25). Standardising for similar outcomes, spend per child still varies from £299 to £805.

Whilst there has been much debate as to why this is the case, there is little true understanding of the factors driving the variation, nor any robust evidence indicating which of these have the greatest impact.

This work, commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA) and undertaken by Newton, seeks to shed light on the factors driving variation of spend on children’s services, establishing why some authorities spend significantly more than others, whilst achieving similar levels of outcome.

To gain a full and rich picture of the issues, Newton designed a research process comprising two distinct projects.

Firstly, a detailed scrutiny of national data was undertaken to identify the factors operating in the wider economic and political environment that influence the level of spend on children’s services.

This identified that half of all variation in spend between councils can be explained by five demographic, geographic and economic factors largely outside the control of councils

The heatmaps featured in the report, and as part of this website, may be a helpful tool to understand where a local authority benchmarks according to those five factors which were found to have the biggest impact on spend – as well as what this might mean for predicted spend.

The second project within the research comprised an in-depth, on-the-ground analysis with a representative sample of local authorities.

The in-depth work with councils identified three areas that councils may want to consider:

  • Analysis of reported spend, according to the revenue outturn financial returns, echoes previous research that has shown variation in the accuracy of how these returns are compiled. Examples were seen where individual council spend changed by up to 12%.
  • Studying spend on looked after children and safeguarding children showed 13% of spend variation comes from differences in practice and processes within control of councils. The changes required to achieve this consistently, whilst more in the control of councils than other local partners, are nonetheless complex, potentially costly and challenging to achieve, with no ‘one size fits all’ solution across authorities.
  • There was also significant variation in the way councils fund and run their other services which includes local factors, the impact of partners, as well the use of early help and preventative services – our findings showed spend on these areas varied significantly, from 22% of total children’s budget in one authority to 56% in another.