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Early help

The best chance for us to make the biggest difference in children’s lives is when they are very young, between 0-5 years old. We know children’s experiences in these formative years, the parenting and the education they receive can make a huge difference to their long term outcomes.

In June, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published research on the effects of children’s centres on children’s health outcomes. It showed that centres have had major benefits for children’s health by reducing hospitalisations among children throughout primary school. The biggest benefits were felt in the poorest areas and were also greater over time. This has resulted in savings to the NHS of approximately £5 million. The findings are significant and add yet more weight to the argument for adopting an ‘invest to save’ approach in local areas.

Children’s centre provision varies from place to place and as a result of year on year budget reductions physical buildings may now have closed, but in many areas services are running out of libraries or attached to a health clinic, or schools. The Department for Education’s own study published in 2015 highlighted the wider benefits of centres on maternal mental health and the functioning of families, however, researchers noted that the impact of austerity is eroding these benefits.

Directors of Children’s Services are constantly thinking about how we can respond effectively to the challenge of improving children’s outcomes in a context of diminishing resources and we face a real dilemma in the territory of early help. We know early help works yet we alongside our partners are increasingly unable to maintain an adequate system of preventative services. In times of rising inequality and falling investment in public services, it’s more important than ever that we spend our money wisely. This applies to central government too, its continued focus on free childcare rather than developing high quality early education seems at odds with the social mobility agenda. Moreover, local authorities are not supported to deliver targeted early help services which can really improve outcomes for our children and young people and prevent the need for more costly, statutory intervention at a later stage.

We know that where we are unable to provide early help we are storing up trouble.

There is not enough money in the system, and this must change. It is impeding our ability to ensure local needs are met, to provide vital early help to the most vulnerable and to affect a generational change. And we will find ourselves paying a heavy price for this as a consequence.

Rachel Dickinson is Executive Director People at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council and ADCS President 2019/20.

This column was first published in the MJ on 3 July 2019 |

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