Serious violence strategy: Government needs to start engaging with the evidence base

10 April 2018

If Government really wants a ‘step change’ in the balance between prevention and enforcement, it needs to start to engage with the evidence base

By Donna Molloy and Stephanie Waddell, EIF

We were delighted to hear the Home Secretary say yesterday that she would be placing early intervention at the heart of the Government’s approach to ‘serious’ violence. Youth violence is a chronic problem that needs a sustained, strategic and coordinated response. Early intervention is a critical part of the solution, but it mustn’t be consigned to words on a page and to yet another small, short term funding pot for a myriad of activities of uncertain impact.

The Serious Youth Violence strategy’s assessment of the evidence on risk factors and effective interventions is extensive. It is also cautious, and there is some justification for this. The UK evidence in this territory is still at an early stage. There is a lot we don’t yet know about how best to prevent certain types of problems or certain behaviour.

But, there is an awful lot we do know, and we simply must act on this. We know, for example, that social and emotional skills are vitally important for children’s life chances. These skills include the ability to understand and manage emotions, and regulate behaviour – skills which help children to develop resilience and avoid risky situations. We know that high quality social and emotional learning programmes delivered in schools can have an impact on longer-term violence outcomes as well as on highly relevant risk factors like aggression and conduct problems.

We also know that family-level factors like parental conflict and the quality of parenting impact on children’s behaviour and mental health. Strong family relationships are important protective factors against involvement in violence. There are a range of evidence-based programmes designed to support parents and improve outcomes for children, which need to be more widely available.

Disappointingly, the Government’s evidence assessment and stated commitment to early intervention is not matched by the ensuing commitments, which are largely a roll call of previously announced or ongoing government initiatives. This does not signal a ‘step change’. It is more of the same.

The £11m committed through the Early Intervention Youth Fund is, of course, a welcome investment in the vitally important youth and community sector.  We would like to see a strong emphasis on testing the impact of new activity in this space, and some guiding principles from the Home Office about the kinds of approaches that are likely to be successful. We mustn’t fall into the trap of assuming that any ‘early intervention’ is better than none.  We need to see investment in evidence-based, effectively targeted and well implemented interventions.

We call on the Home Office to be more ambitious about early intervention. This means both engaging with the evidence more meaningfully, and working collaboratively with their cross-Government colleagues on the hard stuff that needs concerted, coordinated effort. The real opportunities here lie not in the creation of another short-term funding stream, but – to give just a few examples – in the structural changes proposed in the mental health green paper, in the consultation on the future of personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), in allowing schools to focus on children’s social and emotional development as well as on their academic attainment (and recognising the link between the two), in the future arrangements for Troubled Families programme funding, and in the work DWP is leading to reduce parental conflict.

Tackling the root causes of violence is a laudable aim. It’s an aim that the Government has stated many times now. Early intervention is an easy concept to grasp, but implementing it effectively takes time, commitment, ongoing investment and evidence-based policy making across a wide range of departmental agendas. It is time the Home Office recognised this.

Donna Molloy is Director of Policy and Practice, and Stephanie Waddell is Dissemination Lead for High Risk Children and Young People.