Features: December 5th, 2014

Phil Neal examines the obstacles standing in the way of effective early intervention and talks to senior leaders in children’s services about how these can be overcome.

It is encouraging to see the steadily increasing number of media headlines highlighting the successful early intervention schemes being introduced across the country to help children and families in need.

The goal of addressing the multiple issues many vulnerable families experience in their lives before they become too deeply entrenched is becoming a well-established approach for public services. At local level, this could be initiatives aimed at primary school children to prevent them from getting involved with crime or gangs in the future. At a national level, the early intervention agenda has underpinned the work being done in the schemes such as the Troubled Families programme, where difficulties are addressed through a more family centred approach.
While early help is shaping public service delivery and gaining acceptance as a best practice model, there are those who see challenges that must yet be overcome before success can be achieved more widely.

To identify what the biggest challenges to delivering early help might be, I have spoken to a number of leaders of children’s services and asked them what they thought the key barriers were and what might be done to move past them. Below is a snapshot of some of the views that were expressed.

Mel Meggs, assistant director, Universal and Targeted Services, Derbyshire County Council

One of the challenges is that the success of many early intervention strategies may only become evident over a long time period. This means that a time delay may exist between the point of intervention and improved outcomes for children and families, which can impact on how funding might be secured.

We need to spend money in the current funding round, but may not achieve the improved outcome – or potential cost saving – for several funding rounds to come. This can be further complicated by the savings being shared by a number of agencies for a single intervention.

There also needs to be a clearer, shared definition of what successful early help looks like so that we can track outcomes over the longer term. An international example of this is the Head Start Scheme in the States, which has tracked the impact of support being provided to children from low-income families into adulthood.

Enver Solomon, director of evidence and impact, National Children’s Bureau

There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that putting the right help in place sooner for vulnerable children and families can improve their lives and reduce the need for public money to be spent on more serious problems further down the line. But with the emphasis increasingly on the multi-agency approach, budgeting for an early help offering can be a complex undertaking.

It is essential that transparency is championed and that there is a firm focus on building strong relationships between the different agencies in contact with children and families. The third sector has a critical role to play in ensuring that early intervention and prevention strategies help to transform the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of society. Shared responsibility as well as recognition is mission critical to success.

Rose Collinson, former interim director of children’s services, Walsall Council

While progress is being made, on a national level, we are still relying too heavily on finding and managing the problems experienced by children and families rather than predicting and preventing them.

Guiding a family towards a healthier diet to improve children’s nutrition, for example, will not have a lasting impact on their lives if there is deep-seated emotional neglect behind this that needs to be addressed. It is vital that we have local systems where we can call on a range of experts who can help. Yet this in itself presents its challenges. Staff and practitioners working across all agencies and professions need to share an understanding of who is best placed to deliver what support and when.

Making a real difference to children and families requires practitioners to gain their trust. This is incredibly important. But we must also encourage resilience. The services offered should be designed to help families manage the different challenges they face more effectively. While it is essential to help people to be emotionally and physically healthy and to keep them safe, it is equally important to ensure the appropriate support network is in place to enable the family to thrive when the time comes to step away.

Driving continued success

As the early intervention journey continues, some great leaps are being made in designing schemes that improve the lives of vulnerable children and families from across the country. But there is still some work to do to open up greater opportunities for agencies to make a lasting difference.

It is encouraging to see a growing commitment within a broad range of agencies to work together, share expertise and build solid support networks for a holistic approach to early help. To ensure this achieves the desired results, those responsible for service delivery need to have tools available that enable them to share information easily and tackle problems in a way that will change lives for the better.

Teams need to be able to make more informed decisions about the most effective support plans for individuals as well as the family as a whole and ensure that the best people are involved in putting these plans into place.

Greater transparency needs to be achieved in planning and forecasting budgets and with the right systems in place, savings could be monitored over the longer term. This would help ensure that the most appropriate services are put in place where they are needed and that they have a positive impact on those they are
aimed at.

Delivering brighter futures

Shifting the focus more firmly onto preventing problems rather than solving them once they are established calls for a change in approach too. It is now possible for practitioners to use the information they record on children and families to identify those interventions that have worked well, as well as flagging others that may not have been so successful. By holding this type of information centrally, agencies can develop powerful prediction models which could help them to build more effective and targeted support packages, based on certain criteria. Knowing what schemes have got more children into school regularly or prevented more young people from ending up in the youth justice system can help change lives as well as reducing future costs.

Quantifying the success of early intervention could take many years, and we need to take a long term view when it comes to measuring its impact. But what is clear is that the work that is being done today will be crucial to shaping the planning and delivery of children’s services for the future.

Phil Neal is the managing director of Capita One, whose management information solution is used by 120 local authorities to manage data on children and families.