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 This included as yet unpublished studies that found: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
- 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.
- Fund the implementation of this duty, including by taking account of poverty levels in different areas.
- Provide clear guidance on assessing eligibility for early help to reduce variations in thresholds.
- Develop a national framework for early help.
- 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.