Focus on prevention

    Nick Axford and Michael Little are researchers at the
    Dartington Social Research Unit. The Unit belongs to the Warren
    House Group, which works in Europe and the US to improve social
    care for children and families through a combination of scientific
    research and innovative development, dissemination, training and
    design strategies.

    Many councils are busy developing local preventive strategies.
    To support the process, the Children, Young People and Families
    Directorate commissioned an overview of the literature on effective
    prevention strategies from Dartington Social Research Unit.
    Refocusing Children’s Services Towards Prevention:
    Lessons from the Literature
    has been recently published by the
    Department for Education and Skills as Research Report 510 (see

    The heart of the report is about refocusing towards prevention.
    There is no place here for arguments about prevention versus
    intervention; both are essential elements to effective
    children’s services. But the new culture requires a shift in
    emphasis to focus on prevention, rather than tackling entrenched,
    chronic problems.

    Why does the new legislation require us to refocus on
    prevention? The primary goal from this exercise is demonstrably
    improved outcomes for children. But there are other benefits also
    highlighted in the review. These include:

    • Integration of children’s services, with improved
      inter-agency working and an optimal balance between statutory and
      voluntary provision.
    • Greater efficiency in terms of cost and time, in particular,
      ensuring that resources are not sucked into a continual fire
      fighting exercise to support children whose social and
      psychological needs have become entrenched.
    • Improving user involvement, aligning children’s services
      with the natural tendencies of children and families when they seek
      to solve their own problems.
    • Clarity about which services can best meet the needs of
      different groups of children.

    Of course, there have been many new prevention activities
    sponsored by central government in recent years: Sure Start,
    Children’s Fund projects and the Youth Justice Board
    initiatives in particular spring to mind. One of the challenges for
    directors of children’s services as they develop local
    preventive strategies will be to integrate this centrally sponsored
    activity into their local provision.

    What does the review tell us about methods for shifting
    resources towards prevention and preparing a clear prevention
    strategy? First, the importance of building and using a local
    evidence base is clear. The technology here is shifting fast. Local
    authorities have to have a clear idea of what it is that they are
    trying to prevent before they can get on with the job.

    Second, prevention means doing something different. An effective
    prevention strategy requires the design, implementation and
    evaluation of new services. And since refocusing implies a shifting
    of resources, de-commissioning ineffective services is as important
    as commissioning effective prevention services.

    Third, the traditional routes of fiscal control and
    re-organisation are likely to be as important to the future of
    children’s services as they have been to its past. Until a
    truly needs-led provision is achieved, shifting the direction of
    the money will largely determine the shifting of provision.

    Fourth, careful thought needs to be given to making preventive
    initiatives part of mainstream provision, so spreading their reach
    and reducing the stigma associated with using them. Since
    innovative projects too often “fizzle out”, invariably for want of
    resources, adopting strategies for rolling out proven interventions
    is also a must.

    Of course, refocusing activity is not without risks. To mitigate
    these, the report suggests bearing in mind that:

    • “Early intervention” does not necessarily mean early in a
      child’s life.
    • Good prevention should not be thought of as “light” – it is
      often intensive and rigorous.
    • Refocusing that takes place without considering the views of
      staff and users may be counterproductive.
    • Services should guard against “net-widening”, whereby children
      with few or no needs are drawn into remedial services

    The Children Bill is one of the first steps on a long road to
    reform that will take many years to complete. Local preventive
    strategies will provide the road map. Ensuring that they remain an
    up-to-date and accurate record of the terrain is vital. The DfES
    overview is one part of the broadening array of evidence that
    should support local authorities along the way.

    About the report

    The evidence in the report is supported by a “how to” guide, a
    best practice model for developing an effective prevention strategy
    that is currently in use in several English local authorities.

    There are also numerous examples of effective re-focusing work
    from around the world. Connections are made to other current
    pre-occupations of children’s services, for example ISA,
    common language and ensuring that prevention does not become a
    by-word for ineffective child protection.

    There is little excuse for local authorities to make
    children’s strategy on a whim, without reference to local
    evidence. Much can be gleaned from the mountain of local
    information that resides in the silos of the departments that make
    up children’s services. The census can help. The report shows
    how to find, connect and use this information. It also illustrates
    how Dartington has developed a technology for auditing the needs of
    all children in a local authority, building on its existing
    practice tools.

    The report and an executive summary can be downloaded from the
    DfES website at


    As we digest the implications of the Children Bill, a parallel
    process designed to support broader reforms to children’s
    services is also under way. To have any hope of successfully
    implementing the new legislation, each director of children’s
    services will have to design a good local preventive strategy. This
    article looks at the benefits of refocusing towards prevention and
    how to do it while mitigating the associated risks.

    Further reading

    1 M Little, K Mount, Prevention and Early Intervention with
    Children in Need
    , Aldershot, Ashgate, 1999

    2 M Rutter, H Giller, A Hagell, Anti-Social Behaviour by
    Young People
    , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998

    3 Prevention Research Center at Penn State University, US:

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