Engaging a new generation: Early intervention at party conferences

16 October 2017

By Jo Casebourne, EIF chief executive

Since I took on the role of chief executive in August, one of the things at the top of my list has been to make the case for early intervention to politicians and policymakers at the national and local level alike.

There have been many changes in the political landscape since EIF became an independent charity just four years ago – we’ve had two elections, the EU referendum, change in leadership of all the main political parties, and we’ve seen six new powerful ‘metro mayors’ elected in city-regions in England. Taken together, these changes have created an invaluable opportunity to engage a new generation of politicians to become powerful advocates for early intervention.

These changes have created an invaluable opportunity to engage a new generation of politicians to become powerful advocates for early intervention.

So over the last couple of weeks I’ve been down to Brighton and up to Manchester, making the case for early intervention on panels at fringe events at the Labour and Conservative party conferences. These events were really well attended, and the discussions that I had with other panellists and audience members made it clear that early intervention has a key role to play in addressing a number of the serious social issues at work in our country.

Intervening early to offset the effects of poverty on family relationships and outcomes for children

At Labour conference I spoke on an IPPR panel on ‘Problem debt: the role of public services in supporting families and tackling poverty/disadvantage’, drawing on EIF’s research on interparental relationships. I argued that:

  1. Economic stress impacts on family relationships – both between parents and between parents and children – and directly impacts on children’s outcomes.
  2. There is a lack of join-up between services which aim to reduce poverty and services which focus on supporting family relationships.
  3. As well as trying to tackle poverty itself, more can and must be done to offset the damaging effects of poverty on family relationships and outcomes for children.

Our work at EIF on interparental relationships has found that economic hardship creates psychological and emotional distress, which can have implications across family life. Economic stress can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression, which can lead to problems in the couple relationship and also disrupts parenting and time spent interacting with children. This is linked to future difficulties for children and adolescents, and can affect school attainment, mental health and a range of other outcomes. Tackling debt and economic pressure and supporting family relationships, therefore, has significant potential to improve outcomes for children.

Services should be working in coordination to support families in overcoming debt and related issues, but they aren’t – yet. The local system to tackle poverty and worklessness is not linked to services that support parents or provide whole family support. There are, however, some shoots of innovation. For example, as part of current Local Family Offer, Croydon is running a pilot to train those working in debt, housing and money advice services in how to provide interparental relationship support.

But more can and must be done. Our work has identified interventions which support interparental relationship issues and parenting in the context of poverty that have evidence of effectiveness. These should be delivered more widely and evaluated more thoroughly.

There is also a clear need to embed a focus on parental relationships in local systems and services. Embedding relationship-support in mainstream services, such as children’s centres and health visiting, offers the potential to overcome access barriers and to reach families early. Targeting transition points – such as new parenthood, separation, a child starting school or when parents risk falling into poverty – offers opportunities to reach families before relationship difficulties escalate.

The role of metro mayors in early intervention

Also at Labour conference, I chaired an Institute for Government fringe ‘Will the new Metro Mayors change British politics?’. I argued that devolution in England offers the opportunity to do things differently: testing and learning what works, and then spreading what works across the system. The new metro mayors and their combined authorities have huge potential in ensuring effective early intervention for children at risk happens across their city-regions. They work at the right scale to achieve real change in public services, and will be able to use their ‘soft power’ to convene local public service leaders to sort out problems requiring coordination across agencies.

Early intervention should be a key part of mayors’ inclusive growth agendas going forward. For example, services that support early language development and social and emotional skills of children can enable school readiness, which can in turn help to build a strong economic future for these city-regions.

Early intervention should be a key part of mayors’ inclusive growth agendas going forward. 

How early intervention can help achieve social justice

A week later, at the Conservative party conference, I spoke on a Bright Blue panel ‘Left behind no longer: Achieving social justice in Britain’. I argued that:

  1. Disadvantaged children have poorer social and emotional skills, which can lead to poor mental health outcomes.
  2. Family economic circumstances and disadvantage impact on a child’s ability to learn all the skills of speech, language and communication.

Evidence shows that good social and emotional skills are important for children to lead happy, healthy and successful lives. But inequalities in the development of these skills can be seen from three years old. Children from poorer backgrounds tend to have lower levels of self-control and emotional health than wealthier children. This means we need to act early.

The good news is that these skill levels are not set in stone. They can be developed. EIF has identified a range of well-evidenced programmes that can be delivered in schools at low cost to support social and emotional skills development. These programmes in our Guidebook have demonstrated impact on a range of outcomes including several directly related to mental health, such as symptoms of anxiety and depression, and emotional self-regulation. We need to see more of these well-evidenced programmes being delivered in schools.

Our research underlines the fact that early language acquisition impacts on all aspects of young children’s non-physical development. It contributes to their ability to manage emotions and communicate feelings, to establish and maintain relationships, to think symbolically, and to learn to read and write. While the majority of young children acquire language effortlessly, a significant minority do not. Multiple studies have shown that income-related gaps in children’s language are detectable by the age of 18 months, and often become bigger throughout children’s early development. The impact of this gap persists, and income-related gaps continue to increase once children enter school.

Because language and communication skills are so essential for school education and achievement, and future employment prospects, allowing less well-off children to fall behind in their language development risks undermining their life chances and perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage and poverty.

Early language development must be prioritised, to close the gap between children in low-income and better-off households. We’ve argued that it should become a child wellbeing indicator, on a par with vaccination, obesity and mental health. This change would make it clear that language development problems have serious consequences and require additional support.

Allowing less well-off children to fall behind in their language development risks undermining their life chances and perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage and poverty.