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3 planks of an integrated family support system: establishing the local conditions for national policy to succeed

Published

3 Mar 2022

What would it take to draw together current strands of government policy on early help and additional support for families into an integrated, coordinated family support system? EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne highlights the local conditions required to maximise the potential of national policies and programmes to provide effective support for more families.

In recent months, we’ve seen several government policy announcements that have the potential to shift the landscape of services and programmes that provide vital additional support to children and families across the country.

The spending review in October set out much-needed investments in the Supporting Families Programme and new Family Hubs. It also put money behind a number of recommendations from Andrea Leadsom’s Start for Life review, with extra support in crucial areas including breastfeeding and perinatal mental health.

Several of these commitments were underlined in the recent levelling up white paper, which recognised a set of important outcomes around educational attainment, health and economic prospects. It also signalled the potential for some important changes in the government’s approach to policymaking, which could lead to improved accountability and evaluation around family policy.

Looking ahead, there are more of these key announcements to come before the summer, including the report of the independent review of children’s social care, a schools-focused white paper from the Department for Education, and a national strategy on domestic abuse.

Taken together, these policies could lay the groundwork for a more coordinated, integrated approach to family support, of the kind we’ve long advocated for. But to make this vision a success, many crucial decisions, and the hard work of implementing new programmes and policies, must happen at the local level, through local government, public services and agencies, and their local partners.

So how might these significant national policy developments enable improvements in the way support for children and families is delivered locally – improvements which, in turn, are crucial to creating this stronger, more effective family support system?

1. Increasing the use of approaches that have been shown to work

First, we need to increase the use of approaches that have been shown to work in the past. This starts – but doesn’t end – with evidence-based programmes, where we have some of the strongest evidence about what works. These programmes are not a panacea, and need to sit within a range of services designed to meet the needs of families with different levels of need (often described as a ‘public health’ model). That said, where there are programmes that have been robustly tested and refined in response to multiple evaluation findings, they are often the best bet.

In too many cases, we know there is a gap between what we know about ‘what works’, and the programmes and support that is available in a particular place. All those involved in designing, commissioning or planning support for children and families need to be enabled and incentivised to make use of the evidence, and to use evidence-based approaches where appropriate and available.

As one example, we are particularly keen to see an increase in the availability of well-evidenced interventions for families with very complex needs, where there is a risk of escalation to child protection. This could happen through programmes like Child First, a home visiting intervention for families where there is a risk of abuse and neglect, which has evidence of improving the behaviour of young children and reducing rates of child maltreatment.

Now, ‘what works’ evidence has a value beyond simply establishing a list of interventions that local authorities or others can commission. Robust evaluation evidence enables us to understand not only what works, but how it works, and for whom it works.

If there is a good evidence for a broad approach – such as social and emotional learning in schools – then we can start to draw out the ‘common elements’ of different evidence-based programmes and use this insight to strengthen wider practice.

Robust evaluation evidence also helps wider service improvement by supporting the development of evidence-based theories of change. For example, we know from looking at evaluation data that less-intensive forms of parenting advice are unlikely to work for families with multiple complex problems. While some parents may say they feel more confident after receiving parenting advice, these less-intensive forms of support rarely result in any measurable benefits for children. This is all vital information if you are designing or seeking to improve a local parenting intervention or thinking about everyday practice with families.

2. Supporting professionals working with families

Second, we need to consider how to support professionals working with children and families. Of course, evidence-based interventions can only work if the conditions for success are in place locally, and the availability of suitably skilled and qualified practitioners to deliver these interventions is a critical success factor.

In many cases, commissioning an evidence-based programme will provide a route to training for professionals in that particular programme’s approach. But we’re interested in workforce development more broadly, outside of individual programmes.

To ensure that all those working with children and families are skilled and confident, we need clear and consistent professional development for those outside the children’s social care system, across the huge diversity of services and organisations they work for.

We need to value the incredible and challenging work that these practitioners do and make sure that they are supported through high-quality, evidence-based training and qualification routes, and through clear expectations around supervision.

3. Building strong local systems

Third, we need to ensure that local systems are functioning well. As demonstrated in our recent report on early childhood services, strong systems are the bedrock of effective work with children and families. The local ‘conditions for success’ of course extend beyond proven programmes or skilled practitioners.

In making national polices, it can be too easy to overlook the need to invest in the development of strong local systems, which enable effective implementation of those policies and national initiatives. Strong national policymaking creates the capacity at local level for partners to reflect on the way local systems are functioning, to identify strengths and weaknesses, to assess the level of maturity of partnership arrangements, and to resolve problems that affect the day-to-day work of practitioners.

Local partnerships need the space and freedom to be able to understand local population needs thoroughly, to set shared priorities, translate these into shared outcomes and accountability mechanisms, and develop clear local monitoring and evaluation plans.

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I believe that recent policy developments and investments into family support can enable these essential conditions, provided there is enough focus through the roll-out of these policies on using evidence and supporting implementation. The policies are a crucial first step towards constructing a more integrated, coordinated system of family support, one which provides the right kind of support to more families who need it. Now, making those policies a success requires a broader and deeper understanding and appreciation of the challenges and existing strengths and resources that exist at the frontline of family support provision.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is chief executive at EIF.