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A stitch in time


13 Mar 2015

An unheralded, but significant, achievement of the present parliament has been the galvanising of almost complete consensus across the political spectrum for the concept of early intervention. Led by the pioneering reports of Graham Allen, and epitomised in the establishment of the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), the thrust of debate is no longer around why we should establish early intervention measures, but how.

Despite this progress, though, why is it that England is still struggling to move from rhetoric to action?   After all, the three main parties have publicly recognised that investing early to prevent problems reaching crisis point makes sound political sense – for the individual families concerned, for wider communities, and for the public purse. Preventing issues from escalating limits the impact they have on the lives of vulnerable children and families. Intervening early, before problems are entrenched and become more difficult to resolve, has the potential to save taxpayers money – so why are we struggling to implement more of this work?

Part of the problem lies in difficulties around measurement and savings. Most of us know instinctively that taking action early can save problems down the line – which is why, for example, many of us will service a car to prevent it breaking down later (on the motorway!), or purchase an insurance policy in case the worst happens. We take a calculated gamble that this is going to benefit us in the longer term.  In a sense, early intervention can be seen not as one single policy but as a collection of policies encompassing a broad philosophy.

But at a macro-level politicians need more than a hunch to make decisions over spending the public money they are temporarily entrusted with. They need firm data to understand how deep are the effects a particular intervention may bring, what savings are likely to be made in the future, and where these benefits are going to be felt – in particular, which government department or agency may bear the burden of the spending and which may feel the benefits of the savings.

Unfortunately this is not easy – and it takes time. When do we stop measuring the benefits of an intervention in the early years? When a child reaches school? When they finish school? When they reach 30? 40? 100? 

The current Education Secretary, and former Treasury Minister, Nicky Morgan recognised as much when she suggested at last month’s EIF conference that more longitudinal information on these very issues was needed if we were to achieve the cultural change required to make early intervention a reality.

This is daunting, but we’re not at a standing start. Already EIF has begun gathering vital evidence about successful interventions, and more is out there. They are also analysing data from the Millennium Cohort Study and elsewhere on what features of childhood are important for life chances. A wealth of testing and learning over the past five years has also helped us to establish where social investment can play a part – and also where it can’t. Perhaps the National Audit Office could play a role in investigating the impacts of early intervention by government and public agencies.

This underpins why Barnardo’s has been working together with Action for Children, The Children’s Society and NSPCC on ‘A stitch in time’, a campaign championing early support for children and young people – we want to ensure that we do not go back to the drawing board after May 7, but instead look to build on this momentum into the next parliament and ensure any new government picks up where the current one has left off. The campaign has already gathered significant support from across the children’s sector and aims to bring the concept of “early support”, as the four charities choose to call it, to the public’s attention and raise the issue as a political priority – not just for now but years in the future.