Foundations for Life: Blog by Leon Feinstein, EIF Director of evidence

11 July 2016

Today EIF publishes Foundations for Life. What Works to Support Parent Child Interaction in the Early Years,” a report on the evidence for programmes and interventions in the UK that aim to improve parent-child interaction in the early years in the service of improved child development.

The providers and developers whose programmes form the basis of this review deserve huge credit for the way they have engaged in the review and still more for the way they have contributed to the underpinning knowledge, as have the thousands of children and families who have in different ways at different times contributed to the evaluation studies. No-one can fail to be aware of the risk to programmes such as these from reduced local authority spending on early intervention in many areas. For some of the providers the business of being assessed by the EIF has been difficult. We and they have persisted because of a common commitment to improving the lives of children and families.

We have set quite a high bar for this evidence because we want to establish firmly that early intervention can deliver sustainable, long-term benefits for children, families and the wider economy and society.  We want a strong handle on the scale of costs and benefits because that is what commissioners ask. There have been longstanding debates about the benefits of early intervention. The Allen Review established, as have James Heckman, the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child and many others that in principle early intervention can transform lives and deliver tangible savings. This review is about the actual practice of designing, commissioning and implementing interventions that realise this potential. We have required rigorous evidence to say that an approach has shown it is effective, but we also recognise stages in development of this evidence and the importance of small steps.

We report on the findings from assessing the evidence for 75 programmes that aim to improve child development through improving the home life of children. We have focused on  specific features of the interactions between children and parents or carers that have been shown to improve children’s emotional, behavioural and cognitive development. We aim to bring attention to the role of parents and children themselves. Even as babies, children interact with their contexts and the people and objects in them. This interaction is a driver of experiences and development. Parents and carers play a critical role in supporting and shaping this environment and by engaging with their children directly. By focussing support here when it is needed, in ways sensitive to the needs and aspirations of parents and carers, then local Councils, health, pre-school and voluntary sector agencies can best support children and families to realise their potential, and in doing so reduce the need for more invasive intervention down the line.

There is a wealth of promise in these programmes and so the publication of the review is only a start. I hope commissioners read the report as well as its summaries and guides to action and use the findings to shape their approach to commissioning with a recognition that there is a range of types of early intervention, that what works is always about what works for whom, when, and that careful decision-making must be followed by careful and well monitored implementation. We would also like to see improvements to the depth and reach of evaluation.

We are delighted to start to share the findings and hope that this report proves helpful to a sector and field that is more vital than ever, leading to tangible improvements to the lives of children.