Early help must focus on the under-twos

Paul Ennals
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Every so often, a "landmark" report on early intervention is published.

Each set of authors laments the continued cuts in preventative and early help services; they highlight the continued rise in the numbers of children in care and the consequent increased costs; and they rail against the stupidity of a policy process that cannot agree to invest now in order to secure savings in the longer term.

The recent Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) report suggests a 25-year plan. It proposes a new national panel of experts (which I thought the EIF was already funded to be). It calls for a cross-government ministerial group (just like we had under Every Child Matters). And it calls for more funding to research which services are most effective, and for rolling out those models.

Nothing wrong with any of these recommendations on their own, but we need something different if this report is to have more impact than the previous ones.

In 2013, the Wave Trust's excellent Conception to age 2 - the age of opportunity report set out in detail the case for investing in early years. This resulted in the Big Lottery programme "A Better Start", through which £212m is being spent over 10 years in five deprived areas to develop a range of local support services to families of young children.

Three years into the programme, the early evaluations suggest that the programmes are on track, but that it is very difficult to demonstrate real change so far. It sounds like such a lot of money, but the new funding does not even match the amounts that have been cut out of early intervention funding in the target areas.

EIF's report concentrates on identifying individual branded programmes - mainly developed in the US, and often still licensed there - where there is robust research evidence of effectiveness. This sounds sensible - who could be against working out what works? But there are two problems.

First, it focuses on programmes that are targeted at children and families that are already displaying problems. Recent evidence demonstrates how we need to concentrate on the experiences of very young children, located in vulnerable families before individual problems surface, if we are to see radical change. Second, it depends on US-led research, where there are very few universal services, and local programmes can only get federal funding if they demonstrate they work in a fixed way.

The programmes may be good, but they tend to be parachuted into deprived communities. What works are strong local services staffed by well trained professionals that command multi-agency support - factors not normally seen in the US, so are omitted from research projects.

We will only get more early intervention when we see proper joining up of services locally; supported by levels of funding that allows investment over a five-year cycle; with a commitment to tackling deprivation where it has most impact - from conception to two.

  • Paul Ennals chairs three local safeguarding children boards

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