Early help must prove it cuts care demand


Graham Allen's 2011 report Early Intervention: The Next Steps makes clear that the real savings from early help lay in its ability to reduce the numbers coming into care to such an extent that fewer high-cost residential facilities would be needed.

When Allen published his report seven years ago, the amount spent on care was £2.9bn. Last month, the bill topped £4bn for the first time. The reasons for this rise are well documented - looked-after children numbers are at record levels, care applications have been high for three years and the number of "live" cases being dealt with by the family courts has also risen 12 per cent in the past year, according to Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas (see Analysis).

Amid the rise in demand, the amount spent on children's services has fallen by £1bn in real terms according to analysis by Labour. Council spending on early help has taken the brunt of this cut with children's charities predicting a 72 per cent fall by 2020.

It is against this backdrop that the Early Intervention Foundation has published its blueprint for the future of early help (see Analysis). It includes recommendations to overcome the structural barriers that hinder investment in early help - particularly how short-term political cycles encourage money to be spent on untested quick-fix solutions. These include creating a cross-government taskforce to better co-ordinate policy, an expert group to improve the evidence base on what interventions work best, and a new fund to test early help programmes in a handful of councils.

A political commitment on the scale envisaged by the foundation would be a much-needed shot in the arm for early intervention. However, with the Budget unlikely to provide significant additional money for children's services, council chiefs and children's services leaders are going to need to be creative and brave if they are to continue investing in early help.

The foundation's report says the question of how much impact early intervention can have on reducing children's social care demand is one that urgently needs an answer. Children's services leaders already know that the support provided through children's centres or troubled families teams is crucial to preventing problems deteriorating. The sector now has to rise to the challenge of producing the evidence to back this up. Failure to do so will see early help services further decimated and care demand continue to rise.

Derren Hayes is editor of Children & Young People Now

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