Explainer: children’s services and young people


Author:  Megan Pacey

Date of publication: 21 May 2024

Children’s services, schools and early years education are core components of the work of local authorities.  All councillors have a role in supporting public and voluntary services for children.  Here is a guide on how your role as a councillor overlaps with education and children’s services.

This guide will also be useful to anyone who needs an overview of local government and children’s service in England.


As a newly elected councillor, you may have already met many families with children in your local wards and divisions. Though your ‘surgeries’ there will have been opportunities to discuss the support, opportunities and environment that your council is able to offer, and this will also inform your work shaping services locally to ensure that children, young people and their families thrive.

If your council has children’s social functions, it is possible you will be contacted about the actions the council has or has not taken in its corporate parenting and child safeguarding role. Your council will also have processes for reporting concerns about families who might be at risk and your Director of Children’s Services and Lead Member for Children’s Service should be able to advise you of them.

You may know or have visited your local schools or engaged with the many charities, sporting and voluntary organisations who work with, support and provide for children and families in the area that you have been elected as a councillor. It might also be that the council is already supporting them financially.

Children’s services legislation and statutory bodies

In England, children’s services functions are defined under education legislation and the responsibility of children’s services falls with county councils, metropolitan districts, London boroughs, unitary councils, the Isles of Scilly and the Corporation of London.

Shire districts do not hold responsibility for what is defined in law as children’s social care services, yet they do hold responsibility for housing and homelessness, and powers over recreation, parks and leisure activities, all of which have implications for children, young people and their families. Similarly, parish councils may also have some responsibility for recreation, parks and leisure and it is reasonable to expect some intersection with the local authority which may use these facilities to provide services within the context of their obligations under the Education Act.

The scope of local government responsibilities and services for children came under significant scrutiny in the early part of the new millennium, in part due to several child abuse inquiries where significant local authority failings had been highlighted. Many local authorities now have an overview and scrutiny committee dedicated to children’s services.

The Children Act (2004) required certain local authorities to appoint a council officer to be responsible for school related education services and children’s social care services – to improve integrated working across these service areas. The Childcare Act 2006 added early years education and childcare.

The Department for Education (DfE) is the responsible government department. The DfE has issued statutory guidance which councils must follow on the management of children’s services. The guidance was last updated in 2013 and can be found here.

Most local authority interaction with the DfE is through arms length bodies including:

  • DfE regional directors, who act on behalf of the Secretary of State, working locally across children’s social care, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), schools and area-based programmes to improve outcomes for children, families, and learners.
  • The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) is responsible for administering funding to deliver education and skills from early years to adulthood. ESFA distributes £67bn to fund education and skills providers including maintained schools and early years institutions via local authorities, academy trusts, special schools, colleges, independent training providers and high needs institutions.
  • Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills inspects and regulates thousands of schools, organisations and individuals providing education, training, and care as well as services that care for children and young people.

The Children Act (2004) requires relevant local authorities to appoint an officer with the title ‘Director of Children’s Service’ (DCS), although the responsible officer may have any number of titles that are combined with other council service roles. The individual fulfilling the role of DCS may also be responsible for education functions for people over the age of 18, along with other council-wide functions. In many local authorities, the individual is also responsible for Adult Social Services.

Councils are also required to appoint an elected member as Lead Member for Children’s Services (LMCS).

Statutory education including alternative provision

There have been considerable changes in national education policy and school organisation over the last decade.


While councils still retain a strategic role to secure sufficient schools in the areas to meet the educational needs of children of compulsory school age (5-16 years), the increasing number of academics and free schools, that are directly funded and directly accountable to government via the regional schools commissioner, means that the role that councils play in schools is evolving.

The local authority continues to provide and manage the mechanisms of managing school admissions, assessing children for special educational needs and disability, school attendance and home to school transport for all children in their area and/or children attending schools in their areas. The level of these services is determined and funded by the council.

Local authorities continue to be responsible for ensuring that there are sufficient high quality school places locally, however, delivering them now requires the council to work strategically with the DfE Regional Director and all existing local provision to extend existing provision, plan new academies or free schools.

Most school revenue funding is provided on a per-pupil basis. In 2022/23, per pupil funding stood at £7,156 per pupil.

Analysis by the Institute for Government showed that while per-pupil funding has increased on average, the experience of individual schools varies. The government introduced a national funding formula in 2018/19 to address discrepancies in the funding that similar schools in different parts of the country received – but subsequent changes have been brought in to more generally ‘level up’ or equalise funding nationally.

Schools serving deprived communities still get more funding per pupil than those in less deprived areas but there are notable discrepancies. Analysis by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that between 2017/18 and 2020/21 most London boroughs saw real-term decreases in per-pupil funding, as did other areas with relatively high levels of deprivation in areas including Nottingham and Birmingham. In contrast, local authority areas in the East Midlands and the Southeast and Southwest had been in receipt of real terms increases.

Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)

Councils, schools and health services are required to work together to support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

The legal framework, the Children and Families Act (2014), introduced a more coordinated system and integrated Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). EHCPs are issued when a child requires a higher level of SEND support, and set out in detail, the support required. Parents, carers and children and young people are actively involved as equal partners in the process of obtaining an EHCP for a child or young person. Council services also support families with disabled children in terms of ensuring that there are aids for and adaptations to the family home, respite care and specialised social work support.

Analysis undertaken by the Institute for Government found the percentage of children with EHCPs had risen from 2.8% of all students in 2014 to 4.3% in 2023. Half of children with EHCPs are in state-funded mainstream primary and secondary schools. Most other children with EHCPs attend state funded special schools, but a sizeable minority attend independent special schools.

Growth in the numbers of children requiring higher levels of support has been attributed to a lack of inclusivity in mainstream schools, coupled with late intervention, which has led to escalated
need. This has prompted families and schools to seek EHCPs which, in turn, means more resources are diverted from mainstream provision which also results in later intervention. Better diagnosis of developmental delay and neurodiverse conditions, such as autism, have also contributed to the growth in EHCP’s being sought.

High needs funding from the DfE pays for places in special schools and spending on alternative provision. It also funds learning support for young people with SEND outside of school age (up the age of 25).

For children with SEND in mainstream schools, the first £6000 of spending on additional support must be funded from schools’ general funding allocations, but separate ‘high needs’ funding can be allocated by local authorities to cover support above this level.

High needs funding is expected to total £10.1bn in 2023/24. This represents an increase of almost 36% in real terms since 2019/20 and a much greater rise than the rise in core schools funding. Despite this significant increase, in 2021/22, three quarters of local authorities were in deficit on the part of their education budgets reserved for schools spending due to the cost of meeting their statutory SEND duties. Overall deficits total in the region of £1.4bn.

Support services for schools

The ‘system leadership’ role of local authorities in relation to school improvement has diminished over the last decade. As large local Multi-Academy Trusts have become part of the education landscape, there is an expectation that they will lead initiatives to help schools develop and improve.

National test and examination performance of primary and secondary schools in the local authority area will be reported to the council’s overview and scrutiny committee – and the council will be expected to use its powers, as far as they currently extend to meet the national government priority of ‘narrowing the gap’ of educational attainment for children from different social backgrounds.

Local councils continue to run some services, many on a payback arrangement for schools including behaviour support and educational psychology services, therapy, educational welfare services, and SEND support services, as well as insurance, human resources, governance and financial management.

Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash


Children's social care

The 2004 Children’s Act made local authorities responsible for ensuring and overseeing the effective delivery of services for children, working closely with others. They must also promote children’s welfare and wellbeing and adopt the role of a ‘corporate parent.’

In practice, this means that local authorities have a major role in safeguarding and protecting vulnerable and ‘at risk’ children. They are also expected to conduct preventative work and provide services such as social work support to families likely to get into difficulty, as well as programmes to support young parents, with an expectation that it will reduce the number of children who will require more formal protection.

Looked after children (LAC)

Looked after children (LAC) refers to a child who has been in the care of their local authority for more than 24 hours. These children are also referred to as ‘children in care.’ Depending on the size of the local authority area, councils can have anywhere between a couple of hundred or more than 1000 looked after children. Children come into local authority care most of the time due to a breakdown in their families lives and/or because of suspected abuse. Some children come into care for other reasons, including through death or otherwise of adults with parental responsibility. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children also become local authority looked after

Looked after children’s living arrangements are varied and often determined by the circumstances through which they became a looked after child. They include:

  • Foster care – where children live with foster parents or carers;
  • Kinship foster care – where children live with friends or relatives through
    kinship foster care;
  • Residential children’s homes – where children reside in residential children’s
  • Other residential settings – where children live in settings such as schools,
    secure units, or semi-independent living accommodation.

Following a period of review, adoption services have moved from being organised locally, to regionally.

Over the last decade, the number of looked after children has increased. It is vital as the ‘corporate parent,’ local authorities provide them with the appropriate care and opportunities that looked after children need to thrive and transition successfully into adult life.

Children cease to be ‘looked after’ when they are adopted, return home, or when they reach 18 years of age, however, local authorities across the United Kingdom are required to support children leaving care until they reach 21 years of age.

Decisions about retaining children in care, the suitability of the placements, or the ‘permanence’ of these arrangements, including when to seek adoptive parents or special guardianship orders are always delegated to the Director of Children’s Services. Some councils have a small group of elected members to review children’s social care arrangements and decisions and make recommendations.

The Institute for Government recorded local authorities spent £11.1bn on social care in 2021/22, a 41% rise in real terms compared to 2009/10. The children’s population grew by less than 10% over the same period.

Sustained increases in children’s social care spending are not only squeezing other areas of local government spending but is prioritising spending on children’s social care at the expense of other services for children. For example, spending on safeguarding children and young people’s services increased by 27% and by 49% during this period but spending services for young people was cut by 61% and the spend on Sure Start children’s centres and other services for children under five fell by 74%.

The government-commissioned independent review of children’s social care has called for a £2bn uplift to children’s social care spending over the next 5 years. This represents approximately 20% in cash terms. It has also called for a rebalancing of priorities away from crisis intervention with an annual amount of £1bn ringfenced for family help.

Early years

Photo Credit: stevendepolo via Compfight cc

Early childhood education, care and support for young families is the most complex and cross cutting areas within local authority children’s services teams.

The Childcare Act (2006) places a duty on local authorities to secure ‘early childhood services’ for the benefit of parents and young children. Taking ‘reasonable steps’ to involve parents, early years providers and other relevant people in those arrangements. They must also consider the quantity and quality of services, and where in the area they are provided.

The duty to ensure enough childcare, where possible, for working parents is set out by the Act, along with the requirement to provide information, advice and assistance to parents and prospective parents on childcare and other services that may be of benefit to them or their children. Councils must also secure information, advice, and training for childcare providers, for which they can impose ‘reasonable’ charges.

Under the legislation, local authorities must also make sure that there is enough childcare available for every child eligible to access their funded early years entitlements for childcare. They should also work to identify parents in the area who might not take advantage of early childhood services that could benefit them and their children and encourage them to take these up.

The impact of the pandemic, alongside the cost of living and the reduction or closure of wider support for children and their families from other community-based services such as children’s centres, has led to concerns of a widening disadvantage gap, reduced ‘school readiness’ and an increasing number of children requiring additional support in the early years as SEND emerge. Care for children with SEND is often absent due to the lack of funding to increase the staff to child ratio or support practical changes that need to be made to the provision.

The market

Private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries account for most early education and childcare places, including half of the funded entitlement places. While there are a sizeable number of childminders, PVI nurseries deliver the majority of Ofsted registered childcare places for children aged birth to 4. PVI nurseries also deliver around half of the three and four-year-old funded entitlement places and most of the funded two-year-old places. However, their presence varies enormously by local authority area and region.

The remainder of places are delivered in nursery classes in primary schools or in just under 400 maintained nursery schools that survive in England. Some local authorities are reporting significant concerns about the future of early years provision in their area. The most recent national data suggests that there has been a small decline in the number of settings – although it is unclear as to whether this also means that there has been a decline in the number of available

The workforce

Workforce recruitment and retention is a long-standing challenge for the early years which is now reaching a tipping point with increasing numbers of providers struggling to recruit the appropriately qualified staff. The early years workforce is considered overall, to be one that is underpaid and undervalued. The qualification and training structure is complex, difficult to navigate and lacking in a career pathway.

What are children entitled to?

Early years entitlement in England is complex and subject to many variables. In broad terms, there is:

  • a universal offer to 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year for all 3 and 4-year-olds;
  • an extended entitlement to 30 hours a week for 3 and 4-year-olds in working families;
  • a disadvantage offer of 15 hours a week for the most disadvantaged 2 year olds

Rolling out between April 2024 and September 2025, new Budget 2023 entitlements to 30 hours a week for children from nine months to the end of age 2 in working families. Entitlements do not extend to parents and carers who are studying or training.


The establishment and subsequent expansions of the funded entitlements in early education and childcare over the past 25 years has seen spending quadruple. Today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that spending is in the vicinity of £5.4bn.

From 2025, all children in working families will get up to 30 hours of funded childcare a week from nine months old. This major expansion, announced in the March 2023 budget, could result in spending more than doubling. Spending is now more than four times higher than it was 20 years ago and, with the new childcare entitlements announced in the Budget, it is possible that spending could double in the next three years. However, these new entitlements represent another significant step towards and early education and childcare system that is geared towards and focused on helping parents to work. There is little that suggests that the investment is intended to support reducing inequalities in children’s development, educational attainment, or
life chances.

Providers have also argued for years that the funding for the existing entitlements is insufficient. Many have seen significant increases in their costs of the last decade, but funding rates have failed to keep pace. Core hourly funding for 3 and 4-year-olds is thought to have fallen by 17% in the decade leading up to 2022/23. If the funded entitlement expands, as the current Government is proposing, England will fast find itself in a situation where the government is setting the price for more of the early education and childcare hours. The risks of getting those funding rates wrong, are significant.

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