Councils should have duty to provide early help with focus on tackling poverty, care review told

Study submitted to care review finds evidence that early help improves lives and prevents escalating need but has been undermined by a decade of cuts and narrowed focus

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Councils should be under a legal duty to provide early help, with a focus on tackling poverty, to reverse the impact of a decade of cuts and a narrowed focus on early intervention instead of family support.

That was the message from the National Children’s Bureau after it released a rapid review of the evidence for early help that it carried out with the University of Cambridge, and that is designed to influence the current children’s social care review.

The report found a “growing body of evidence suggests that sustained investment in early help and preventative services over time can be an effective mechanism for reducing rates of care and keeping children safely in their families”. This included as yet unpublished studies that found:

  • An association between increasing expenditure on preventive services per child and a local authority’s chances of a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating, after controlling for deprivation and child protection spending.
  • A link between increasing per child early help spending and reductions in the rate of children in need, after controlling for deprivation and changes in local authority thresholds.
  • A link between cuts to early help spending per young person over 13 and increases in the rate of looked-after children aged 16 and 17 in the following year.

Decade of cuts

However, there was emerging evidence that this impact had been undermined by the substantial cuts to early help over the past decade, as councils shifted resource towards ‘later intervention’ statutory children’s social care services. It cited analysis by the NCB and fellow charities that found there had been a 44% decrease in early intervention and a 29% rise in late intervention services from 2010-11 to 2018-19.

It also found that the lack of a clear definition of early help had seen resources, and research, shift towards what could most easily be measured or studied through randomised controlled trials. This had resulting in a focus on “early intervention” schemes targeted at individual families to improve parenting capacity and resilience, as opposed to family support measures that tackled issues such as poverty and poor housing.

This was despite the growing body of international evidence showing the causal link between poverty and outcomes for children, including the risk of abuse or neglect.

‘Time for a rethink’

NCB chief executive Anna Feuchtwang called for this focus to be reversed: “One of the central aims of the Children Act was to give a sense of urgency to authorities when they take action to protect the welfare of children as soon as they can. But progress has stalled, and funding cuts mean that services often let children and families’ lives spin out of control before doing anything. It’s time for a rethink of how we configure services – and that action starts with government lifting the pressures on struggling families, and not ignoring factors like poor quality, over-crowded housing and poverty.”

On the back of the report, charity called on the government to

  1. Place a legal duty on councils and statutory safeguarding partners to provide early help to children and families, based on a broad definition that included support to alleviate poverty and poor housing.
  2. Fund the implementation of this duty, including by taking account of poverty levels in different areas.
  3. Provide clear guidance on assessing eligibility for early help to reduce variations in thresholds.
  4. Develop a national framework for early help.
  5. Assess the impact of these measures.

The report is designed to influence the government-commissioned independent review of children’s social care, led by former Frontline chief executive Josh MacAlister. In response to it, he said: “Too often our approach to families defaults towards the firm hand of safeguarding when more often the appropriate response would be an open hand of support. This report, and the evidence base it draws on, is a hugely welcome building block for the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and I look forward to working with the National Children’s Bureau to learn more about their recommendations.”

‘Simply not enough funding’

Sara Tough, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ families, communities and young people policy committee, said the report highlighted the need for greater investment in early help and a national strategy to tackle child poverty.

She added: “There is no doubt that the earlier we work with children and families to help them overcome the issues they face, the less impact these challenges will have on their lives but also on society as a whole. Local authorities are committed to supporting children and families as early as possible. However, there is simply not enough funding in the system to enable this approach in all areas. An equitable, long term, funding settlement is the obvious first step to reverse this trend.

In response to the report, a Department for Education spokesperson pointed to a speech last month by education secretary Gavin Williamson that highlighted the government’s investment in family hubs, which provide a gateway to early help for families, with a focus on the early years. Williamson’s speech also announced the creation of a National Centre for Family Hubs, run by the Anna Freud Centre,  to evidence what works and spread best practice.

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One Response to Councils should have duty to provide early help with focus on tackling poverty, care review told

  1. A Man Called Horse June 7, 2021 at 10:37 am #

    Gavin Williamson, well he is unfit for purpose everyone knows that. Interesting he has nothing to say about a decade of Austerity, cuts to services, welfare reform ( code for cuts) cuts to Social Housing and no commitment to level up the poorest in the uk.

    There is unfortunately zero chance of any of the above issues being addressed by an ultra far right conservative Government. We know the strategy is more of the same, more responsibilities for Councils while cutting central Government funding. What this means in practice is ever higher council tax, pay more and get less. The blame for run down hollowed out public services is simply explained by saying nothing to do with us, its your local Council cutting services not our fault.

    The Government know full well the link between poverty, poor housing, inequality and a multitude of other deprivations and bad outcomes for children. The Government have masses of reports, evidence to show the problem. The issue is that they have zero intention of doing anything about it. The Conservatives have an 80 seat majority, they can do what they like, they are not accountable in anyway to the public. The financial crisis caused by Covid19 spelled the end really of any possible levelling up that might have been planned. We now have huge debt and a Government printing electronic money to stop a total collapse of the economic system. We are not going to see any real meaningful action to address deep seated inequality in this country, we can be sure that it is much easier to focus resources on child protection and keep the whole poverty industry up and running. If you want to see a system that actually works take a look at Denmark, Sweden and many others. The population of the UK voted for more of the same vicious attacks on the poor so nothing will be done. We are no-longer a functioning democracy and in the end most of the population don’t care a hoot about the poor.