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Can early intervention reduce the incidence of abuse and neglect and the demand for childrens social care?


13 Feb 2015

Richard White, Department for Education, reflects on a session at our national conference.

Panelists for this session were:

  • Christine Davies CBE (chair)
  • Alan Wood, President, Association of Directors of Children’s Services
  • Merle Davies, Director, Centre for Early Child Development, Blackpool Council
  • Lisa Harker, Director of Strategy, Policy & Evidence, NSPCC
  • Stephen Brien, Director, Social Finance

With expenditure on children’s social care services identified as the single biggest block of late intervention spending – around £6 billion, or 36% of the total – I thought there was a lot of pressure on this session to come up with some answers. And the panellists did their best to meet the challenge.

The proceedings were kicked off by Alan Wood, providing a clear message that things needed to be done very differently to deliver the changes required. He highlighted the need for practitioners to be more ‘generous’ with their professional boundaries, leading to more flexible cross-discipline working. One area where this might well pay dividends is the engagement between early help practitioners and social workers, the crucial ‘front door’ that manages the flow of children into the social care system.

Lisa Harker focused on the need to challenge a culture of fatalism and instil a belief that early intervention can work and abuse and neglect can be reduced. She drew on her personal and professional experiences to illustrate how the right support or interventions, for the right children, at the right time, can make a real difference to outcomes. And she ended by noting how the responsibility for working with families needs to be much broader than just children’s social care services, including links to adult services.

The need to intervene at the earliest opportunity, a key theme across the day, was echoed by Merle Davies. This requires services to identify the first points of contact with families, such as antenatal services, and to intervene at the first signs of trouble. She explained Blackpool’s approach to early intervention, highlighting the use of data both to help them understand the needs of their local population, to target resources and to identify the most effective support packages. She also reiterated the importance of staff having the capacity and expertise to know what to do and take decisions.

Stephen Brien closed matters by considering the budget tensions between the need to continue to deliver statutory services while finding funding for early intervention: how, in practice, to pull the funding forward in the system. He spoke about innovative methods of funding services, in particular the social finance model being used in Essex to fund MST to teenagers on the edge of care. Early signs of the approach appeared positive, with the council able to pay investors on the back of savings to their residential care budget.

As I left the session I was struck by the need both for radical reform and incremental change, to focus on 1% improvement here and there to bring about the constant progress required. I wanted to know more about where the £6bn is spent: what stages and processes within the system draw most heavily on the resource? Where should we look first to make savings? And to think more about how to support safe exits from the system, both to stop children going round the system and secure permanence options that might enhance children’s health and wellbeing. Perhaps topics to return to at next year’s conference…