Why does ambition not match reality when delivering early intervention?

Making early intervention a practical reality remains fraught with problems, says Emma Scowcroft, policy manager at Action for Children

sad child
Photo: Rex Features

Far too often, we see children and families facing severe and complex problems, which could have been prevented if the right support had been in place when they first needed it.

This is despite politicians agreeing early intervention is the best way of supporting children, and families and practitioners knowing that without using an early intervention approach they are unable to stem the growing tide of families with acute problems coming through the system.

So, why have we not made more progress towards embedding early intervention as the standard for children’s social care in the UK? The truth is that making early intervention a practical reality on the ground remains fraught with problems. Fundamentally, our political and funding structures are working against the collective desire to change the way we respond to the needs of vulnerable children.

Even with the devolved power brought about by localism, local authorities continue to have their autonomy undermined by central political timescales and the short-term funding arrangements that follow.

‘Short-term policy making is damaging for children’

So where does the solution lie? Firstly, this is not about wanting more money for councils. It is about allowing them to spend their money better by planning for the long-term, so they can shift their resources upstream and deliver stable interventions.

The instability that characterises our system is in part created by short-term policy making that is passed down the chain from central government to local authorities and service providers. Ultimately, this has a detrimental impact on vulnerable children.

In 2008 we found that during the lifetime of a 21-year-old there had been over 400 different major announcements, policy initiatives and funding streams. This represented, on average, around 20 every year, with each new initiative lasting, on average, a little over two years.

While we have supported many developments over the years, few would suggest that an environment of such uncertainty, with such a volume of change, is a healthy way of developing and maintaining support for some of the most vulnerable and marginalised children and families in our society.

Sustained and positive outcomes

Services have barely enough time to be set up and begin delivering support before staff need to start applying for funding all over again. Most importantly this has a damaging effect on children and families; many will have just learned to trust their key workers, only to suddenly find themselves with new people to work with, or with no help at all.

While local authorities continue to be hampered by short-term funding they are unable to implement their plans or truly know what is making a difference over the long-term. To realise the benefits of early intervention, they must be able to work with their local partners to re-design services based on their local needs and achieve sustained and positive outcomes

That’s why, ahead of this year’s spending review, Action for Children is calling on the government to rethink the way it finances children’s services via local government, and to introduce a ten-year spending plan to enable the shift to early intervention.

We need to move from short-term thinking, too often driven by political expediency, to long-term strategies that put children first and short-term politics second.

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