Making 2020 the year to change the way we support vulnerable children

Jo Casebourne
Monday, December 16, 2019

All children deserve the best possible start in life. But too many face the kind of disadvantage that affects their development and threatens their future health and happiness. When children aren’t prioritised by government and society it results in too many living in poverty, being permanently excluded from school, facing mental health issues or becoming involved in youth violence.

Yet there is good evidence showing that getting in early before problems worsen can make a real difference. Intervening early cannot solve every problem, but it’s vital as a way to minimise the negative impacts of poverty, increase social mobility, and prevent some of the risks that can jeopardise a child’s future. On the flipside, failing to intervene at an early stage can lead to a multitude of negative consequences later in life. We have calculated that the cost of late intervention is £17bn each year across England and Wales. Scarce resources are being wasted in tackling issues that could have been dealt with sooner.

In 2020, with a new majority government in power, it’s an ideal time to look at what is getting in the way of children receiving the support they need, when they need it.

What is getting in the way?

Two key issues are the lack of significant investment and a lack of long-term thinking. While the government has protected or increased funding for important areas such as early years childcare, troubled families and children’s mental health, this must be viewed within a context of significant reductions in overall funding for local services for children. Constraints on public spending mean that local authorities are facing ongoing real-term cuts in funding at a time when demand for their services is rising.

At the same time, short-termism means we are stuck in a cycle of re-inventing the wheel every few years, and prioritising new ideas and initiatives that often get backed for a short period and then dropped, when we get distracted by the next new thing and move on. There’s also a tendency to not learn whether something actually worked or not. Governments of all colours have funded too many innovation programmes that haven’t tested what actually works, so we’re left no further forward when they come to an end in knowing what to back at a large scale. And short-term, single-issue funding pots waste too much time in endless bidding rounds for small amounts of money, when much needed core services are under-funded.

Other issues also get in the way – whether its fragmented responsibility for vulnerable children spread across too many government departments, not delivering the services that we know work, or not knowing enough about what works in key areas, such as how best to work with parents with substance misuse issues. But focusing first on increasing investment and having a long-term approach will go a long way in making real and sustainable change.

What is needed in 2020?

2020 provides a real opportunity to address this through the three-year Spending Review, which was promised but not delivered in 2019. We need to make sure that there is significantly increased support for vulnerable children and a real long-term perspective. As a country we have recognised the need for increased investment in the NHS and the need for the NHS Long Term Plan, which covers the next 10 years.

We need to do the same for children – providing the investment in the effective early support that many children need, alongside a long-term plan for delivering it. We cannot afford as a country to be distracted from the vital long-term domestic priority of supporting all children to achieve their full potential. Let’s make sure 2020 is the beginning of a decade of real change for children in this country.

Jo Casebourne is chief executive, the Early Intervention Foundation

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