Government must heed evidence for investing in early help

A fresh crop of ministers are getting to grips with their brief, including a new Secretary of State for Education and Children’s Minister. As we prepare to work with a new top team in the Department for Education (DfE) and beyond, I have been reflecting on how best to convey the daily pressures we face.

Brexit remains at the top of the political agenda but numerous domestic issues need attention now. In children’s services youth centres and children’s centres are closing and schools and childcare providers are struggling to make ends meet. Young people are being criminally exploited by dangerous gangs and young lives are being lost on our streets as a result of knife-related injuries. Growing numbers of learners are being excluded, more hold education, health and care plans and to our shame, millions of children continue live in poverty.

With so many pressing priorities it is hard to know where to begin. Although short term cash injections would bring some relief, we need long term solutions. I believe a genuine commitment to, and funding for, all forms of early intervention to allow us to support anyone at risk of poor outcomes is urgently required. Acting early on childhood problems doesn’t only help the individual, it contributes to healthier, happier and more productive communities too.

Political changes have delayed this summer’s comprehensive spending review and it’s not yet clear when this process will take place or how many years it will cover. We regularly hear from civil servants that the team at the Treasury value evidence above all else, so here’s what I’d say to the relevant ministers making the case for investing in children and families:

The Education Policy Institute’s 2019 annual report showed that progress on closing the attainment gap has stopped yet we know that even small increases in academic attainment can have significant economic returns. If the GCSE performance of disadvantaged pupils in all regions matched their London counterparts, this would lead to an overall economic benefit of around £20 billion in present value terms (DfE, 2017).

A six-year study on the impact of children’s centres demonstrated improvements in maternal mental health and family functioning (DfE, 2015) while a more recent report found a reduced use of acute hospital care for children in deprived areas who had received SureStart services (IFS, 2019), resulting in savings for the NHS.

Evaluations of the Troubled Families Programme have consistently reported better outcomes for families (MHCLG, various). Some of these claims have been challenged but the importance of this funding cannot be overstated given our early intervention grants have fallen by two thirds. Despite criticisms of the Programme, it is a lifeline, without a commitment to continuing funding beyond March 2020 progress will slow or be lost as skilled staff begin to look elsewhere for roles.

It’s wrong to expect short term cashable savings from investing in early intervention but without a relentless focus on the provision of help earlier, need will continue to grow but life chances will not.

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

This column was first published in CYP Now on 27 August 2019. | https://www.cypnow.co.uk/cyp/feature/2007063/early-help-policy-context


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