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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