Features: April 17th, 2015

As the first in a series of new guidance is released to help frontline staff identify families in need of early intervention, Phil Neal shares the thoughts of senior leaders in the children’s services arena on the challenges and opportunities delivering the early help agenda presents.

The recently published guidelines aimed at helping the police engage more effectively with children and families so that they can spot potential problems sooner will be welcomed by many advocates of early help.

They provide a useful backdrop for the discussions which took place at an event I attended recently along with nine senior leaders of children’s services and the director of a children’s charity. It is clear that many authorities are implementing schemes that are already starting to improve lives.

But a key question raised was how the early help agenda could be even more deeply embedded in children’s services in the coming years.

As one delegate pointed out, the first step is to recognise that barriers still exist, and new and effective ways are required to overcome them.

Where is the need?

All attendees agreed that to make a positive impact in the lives of the most vulnerable in society, the starting point must be to correctly identify their needs.

Having a clear picture of the children and families at local level was seen as key. But as it was pointed out, some children do not fall neatly into categories of vulnerability.

While national key indicators and risk factors were regarded as important for identifying need, authorities also considered local nuances. Discussions highlighted plenty of scope for the involvement of local and third sector organisations that know their communities well and have the necessary insight into the types of problems that their vulnerable citizens may be facing.
One children’s services leader suggested that more information from partners such as health and housing, the police and local charities is essential to understanding the specific needs of the community.

Is it working?

There was general consensus that finding a way to show what schemes are working is key. However, most attendees agreed that evidencing the impact of early help is not always straightforward.
Some authorities had sought the guidance of organisations such as the Early Intervention Foundation, which had helped teams to gain an understanding of the types of services that could be most beneficial to the people in their area. This reportedly made it easier for the councils concerned to target their provision where it would have the greatest impact on improving lives.

Keeping a clear goal in mind was a crucial factor in measuring success, delegates said. Whether the aim is to keep more children from entering social care, or increase the number of parents in work, broad agreement and understanding of the goal is a must.

Another children’s services representative stressed that avoiding a culture of dependency should be at the core of any objective, because knowing the right time to step away from a family is a critical stage in building their resilience.

Joined-up thinking

Multi-agency working now firmly underpins the early help agenda so delegates wanted to see stronger partnerships delivering targeted services.

Attendees recognised that supporting early help is the responsibility of all organisations working with children and families. One senior leader talked about a project to engage services across their area to meet the local community’s needs.
Increased involvement of the third sector in planning early help is having a positive impact, and in one case, an accreditation framework was introduced to promote good quality local service provision.

Shared funding initiatives were also on the agenda. It was considered a positive way forward to have funding for early help coming from different partners, with shared savings key to success.

To be truly effective, delegates agreed that sharing best practice should be at the heart of multi-agency working. Evidence of positive outcomes often motivated staff and informed best practice across partnerships in some authorities, through improved professional development.

The demand for meaningful data

Authorities spoke of the wealth of data on children and families that is used to shape the planning and delivery of effective early help programmes. However, some delegates felt there was often a requirement to dig deeper into the numbers to get a clear picture of the relationship between need and successful early help delivery.

Staff wanted to identify trends, such as housing issues or changes in the employment landscape, which can affect families. They also wanted to use data to accurately spot the point at which a child might fall into the at risk category, such as a sudden change in a family’s circumstances. But appropriate tools for doing this were not always available in some authorities.

Used over time, data was regarded as important in monitoring the impact of early help initiatives and uncovering what works. If a scheme designed to encourage parents to take up free childcare places is not as successful as expected, for example, authorities want to drill down into the data they have access to, to find out why.

Working with schools

There was unanimous agreement that schools were critical to the success of the early help agenda. But a challenge for some authorities was ensuring vulnerable children are school ready.
Many delegates felt that stronger links between schools, both in and outside of local authority control, would help to improve the progress of all pupils. One attendee talked about conversations taking place between schools, nurseries and children’s centres in their area around how to give children the best possible start to their education.

Pupil Premium funding was broadly seen as an opportunity to improve outcomes for their most deprived pupils and many authorities were keen to work more closely with schools to ensure that effective early help programmes were rolled out.

Blue sky thinking

While it can take time to introduce new approaches and measure their success, discussions indicated that there is evidence of a steady and lasting move away from reactive support towards a more proactive offering, which is making a real difference.

Senior leaders agreed that having better quality information and the right technology in place helped to foster innovative thinking in early help. Technology could also enable practitioners to spend more time with children and families, said one attendee, to help improve their lives at an earlier stage.

The event underlined the importance of forging strong links between authorities, schools, the third sector and other agencies to ensure early help programmes flourish at a local level. As one delegate put it, success is based on well-planned schemes that get results and give the most vulnerable citizens in society a greater chance of a brighter future.