Phil Neal talks to leaders in children’s services about what stands in the way of successful early help and asks whether technology could help break down these barriers.
As getting early help to the most vulnerable children and families increasingly becomes a key priority, media reports of programmes that are tackling issues such as youth offending or improving children’s engagement with education are heartening to read.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to senior leaders working in children’s services about the early intervention work being done in their areas to improve the lives of children and families. They shared their views on some of the barriers that still need to be overcome if the early help approach is to succeed.
A commitment to moving further down the early help pathway is shared by many working with children and families in need. But it seems more work could be done to ensure a smoother journey.
By making good use of technology, teams can create a firm foundation for successful early help – from data analysis tools for identifying who needs what support to simplifying the sharing of information between multi-agency teams and tracking the difference services make.
The right systems can help drive efficiency and deliver greater transparency within multi-agency teams. Authorised staff can access the information they need quickly to make informed decisions on which professionals are best placed to deliver support too.
A good management information solution can help make complex budgeting a simpler task, providing the insight that agencies need into where savings are being made. This supports early help partnerships in recognising and replicating best practice more broadly.
It could take months, many years or several decades before we see the impact of much of the work being done across the country to embed early help into the planning and delivery of services for children and families.
But putting the firm foundations in place now is essential to ensuring long term, sustainable change becomes a reality for those who are in the greatest need of support.
What are the greatest barriers to the successful delivery of early help for children and families?
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.
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.