Early Intervention, Earlier On

Directors of children’s services are constantly thinking about how we can respond effectively to the challenges we face around the overall sustainability of funding in the system, particularly in terms of early help. Targeted early help services can really improve outcomes for our children and young people and prevent the need for more costly, statutory intervention at a later stage. But the current financial context is very tough for lots of local authorities and that means that as the pressure on budgets increases so too does the pressure on early help funding and early help services.

Whilst early intervention can happen at any stage in a child or young person’s life, evidence shows how effective support is in the early years (particularly between 0-3 years) in mitigating the risks of longer term challenges and inequalities. We know that children’s experiences, their parenting environment and the education that they receive can make a huge difference to their long-term outcomes. And whilst most children live in their families and thrive, for some children and their families a little extra support at this crucial period in their family lives is really important. But current policy and funding approaches don’t support the sort of creative investment we would like to see in early intervention, in the early years or beyond. Some of the reasons for this might be because the value of early help is underestimated and that it’s increasingly difficult to measure the correlation between spend and improved outcomes for children and families. You can spend more and still not improve outcomes (and vice versa) and the benefits of investment will not be felt for many years.

Despite the financial challenges we face there are lots of examples where local authorities are working together with their partners, including schools and health services to identify children at risk and work with them intensively as part of the local early help offer. The Better Start Bradford programme, a community partnership led by the Bradford trident, sees children’s services, Public Health, the police, CCGs, NHS providers, voluntary and community sector organisations, elected members and families, working together to improve outcomes for children in the area. A range of professionals work with pregnant women and parents with children aged between 0-3 years old to help them give their children a better start in life. Because the programme is relatively new, running alongside it is a research project seeking to engage with and follow the progress of 6000 babies and their families to assess and evaluate which aspects of the programme work and which don’t. It will be really interesting to see the outcome of this study.

Now more than ever we need to spend our money on things that we know work and can make a difference to the outcomes of children and families. This week the Early Intervention Foundation published Foundations for Life: what works to support parent child interaction in the early years. The report assessed the effectiveness of 75 early intervention programmes aimed at improving children’s outcomes through positive parent child interactions in the early years. There is very little research and evaluation in relation to children’s services and early help more generally. This research is an important step in helping us as a sector think very carefully about where we invest our resources and take the steps to ensure that we invest in interventions that are most likely to achieve the outcomes we want to achieve for children and young people. It’s also important that early help programmes in the early stages of their development, for which the benefits are not yet visible, are given the chance and support to develop as they may have significant potential. If early intervention is to deliver the changes we hope for then we need greater investment in more high quality evidence and testing of the effectiveness of programmes in the UK. Without sustained support at both central and local level the early intervention agenda is unlikely to realise its full potential for children and families or become the source of cashable savings that has been looked and hoped for by its advocates.

At our peril we forget how much of a difference early intervention can make.

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