We need more effective early intervention to respond to the needs of the vulnerable children identified by the Children’s Commissioner

4 July 2018

By Donna Molloy, Director of Policy and Practice at EIF

The Children’s Commissioner has today published analysis estimating that there are over 2 million children in England living in families with substantial complex needs. The most striking finding is their conclusion that 1.6 million of these children have no established, recognised form of additional support.

In our view the report is spot on in arguing that part of the response to this has to be expanding ‘lower-level’ or early intervention services which support children and families. We know that well implemented and well targeted early intervention can reduce risks and increase the protective factors in children’s environments and enhance their development. This will not be what is needed in all cases, as the definition of vulnerability used in this report is very broad. But for many of these children, early intervention is likely to be a vital part of the toolkit to reduce the gaps in children’s development that open up early and to preventing early problems resulting in adverse outcomes.

But we mustn’t fall into the trap of assuming that any early intervention is better than none. Wrongly targeted or poorly delivered activity can make things worse. We need to see investment in evidence-based, effectively targeted and well implemented interventions. At EIF we’ve been synthesising the evidence on effective interventions for five years now, and have over 80 programmes shown to have improved outcomes for children on our Guidebook. We could not agree more that these services and interventions should be “routine to access”.

While inarguably incentivising investment in early intervention is part of the solution here, we also need to do more to apply the evidence about what really makes a difference to children’s outcomes in local and national decisions. All too often this isn’t how we operate. Time and time again we see considerable distance between the approaches that have been shown to improve outcomes for children and what is delivered.

We know, for example, that social and emotional skills are vitally important for children’s life chances. The ability to understand and manage emotions, to regulate behaviour, empathise and make constructive decisions are all vital in helping children to develop resilience and avoid risky situations. Unsurprisingly, there are inequalities in the development of these skills. EIF work has shown that poorer children have lower levels of self-control and emotional health, on average, than their wealthier peers, and that these differences persist. High-quality social and emotional learning programmes delivered in schools can reduce these gaps, improving mental health and reducing risks such as aggression and conduct problems. Yet work by the Sutton Trust shows that time spent teaching these skills in schools reduced by over 32% in the four years up to 2016.

Social and emotional learning should be given greater prominence within schools, given its links to mental health, attainment, employment prospects and a wide range of other outcomes. As we commented recently, developing these skills also offers real potential to support priorities such as reducing youth violence, and might be a better bet than another short-term central funding stream.

We also know that strong family relationships are important protective factors against a whole range of future problems. Parental conflict and the quality of parenting impact significantly on children’s behaviour and mental health. There are a range of evidence-based programmes designed to support parents and improve outcomes for children, which need to be more widely available in local areas. Some of these programmes might be the best bet for some of the resources available, for example on the Troubled Families programme.

It is beyond doubt that some of the groups of children included in the Children’s Commissioner’s analysis could benefit from earlier support and intervention. Their analysis shines a light on the case for investing in and prioritising early intervention as part of the solution to childhood vulnerability in its varied forms. The case for action on this issue is compelling.