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Championing early intervention through a tumultuous year


16 Dec 2019

EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne reflects on a year of great change and uncertainty right across the waterfront of domestic policy, and ahead to the challenges and opportunities of 2020.

2019 has been a tumultuous year in politics, more so than was even anticipated at the start of the year. A succession of political events – including two changes in the date Britain was due to leave the EU, a Conservative leadership election and a general election – has meant that the much-needed ‘return to domestic policy-making’ has been repeatedly delayed. This has a real impact on the lives of vulnerable children: it means another year has gone by without the required levels of investment in effective early intervention.

Now that we have an election result, and one that looks likely to lead to several years of stable government, we can look ahead. We need to make sure that there is significantly increased support for vulnerable children in the three-year spending review, which was promised but not delivered in 2019. We cannot afford as a country to be distracted from the vital long-term domestic priority of supporting all children to achieve their full potential.

The policy landscape

Political instability has meant a relatively quiet year on the policy front. In March, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published its evaluation of the Troubled Families programme. This rigorous analysis found improved outcomes for families participating in the programme across a range of outcome areas, including the reduced incidence of children being looked after and a reduced proportion of adults receiving a custodial sentence. 

In the summer the Department for Education launched the Hungry Little Minds campaign to encourage parents and carers to adopt positive activities and behaviours to boost children’s communication, language and literacy development. 

Around the same time, the Domestic Abuse Bill was introduced to Parliament, but it was not enacted prior to the dissolution of Parliament, and so will need to be reintroduced. While Westminster politics has frustrated the bill’s progress, it is pleasing to see cross-party support for its reintroduction in 2020.

Our 2019

Despite the political instability, 2019 was a busy year for EIF. In March, we were announced by the Home Office as one of three partner organisations to run the Youth Endowment Fund, a £200 million, 10-year endowment to fund, support and evaluate programmes working to prevent youth offending. We are working with the youth charity Impetus and Social Investment Business to provide grant funding to interventions across England and Wales that are working with children aged 10–14 who are at risk of being drawn into crime and violence, and crucially, to evaluate these interventions. This provides an invaluable opportunity to test a range of early intervention approaches and build the evidence base in a crucial area. The YEF represents a significant shift for EIF, moving us from synthesising evidence to generating evidence at scale for the first time, through new trials and evaluations to test what works to tackle youth offending. In October, the YEF announced 22 programmes who will receive £16.2 million in the fund's first grants round, set to reach more than 30,000 children and young people.

At EIF we also published two major resources in March that focus on increasing the quantity and quality of evaluation of early intervention in the UK. The first, 10 steps to evaluation success, sets out the milestones along the evaluation journey, providing practical advice about how to develop a scientifically grounded theory of change and progressing through to impact evaluation and scaling of successful interventions. The second, Evaluating early help, focuses on how to conduct evaluations in a complex environment, such as a local early help offer, which may involve many partners and multiple programmes and services. Through these resources we are addressing some of the major challenges facing early intervention commissioners and providers who want to evaluate whether their services are having a positive impact.

2019 also saw us launch the Early Years Transformation Academy. Innovative and intensive, the academy format brings together interdisciplinary teams from maternity and early years services and agencies across a local area, and EIF’s evidence base on what works in the early years, to help participating areas to create cohesive local plans. The academy is being led by EIF in partnership with Better Start Bradford, Born in Bradford and the Staff College. In March, we announced the five participating areas: Barking & Dagenham, Dudley, Norfolk, Sandwell, and Westminster / Kensington & Chelsea. This is a really important initiative to test how best to support local partners to use evidence and it’s the most intensive work we are doing with local places as a What Works centre. We’ve been hugely enjoying working with these five areas and look forward to continuing our work together into 2020.

In February, we reached a significant milestone as the 100th programme was added to the EIF Guidebook, our flagship resource to support commissioners. As we set out in a blog by one of our longest-standing team members, the purpose of the Guidebook is simple: there are a vast array of interventions out there, so it is really important to be clear about which approaches have been shown to improve child outcomes and which ones have not. The EIF Guidebook is how we help people understand which is which. The new programmes added to the Guidebook were the result of a successful first open call in 2018 for submissions to our programme assessment process, following on from earlier themed assessment rounds, and we repeated this open call in 2019, with further programmes to be added to the Guidebook in the new year.

2019 was also a year of change at board level for EIF, with Ray Shostak, David Simmonds, Honor Rhodes and Jake Hayman stepping down at the end of their second terms. Their input and guidance has been invaluable to EIF over the last six years and we owe them all a huge debt of gratitude. EIF’s board was joined by five fantastic new trustees in 2019: Reshard Auladin, Kelly Beaver, Sally Burlington, Joanne Roney and Sharon Kemp. We are very much looking forward to working with them in the years ahead.

Looking ahead to 2020

So, on to 2020 and four key activities for EIF. Firstly, we’ll be publishing a major new evidence review in the new year examining the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence underpinning the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) framework, and considering the implications for policy, practice and future research. Secondly, we’ll be publishing the findings from our review of early childhood services (including children’s centres), examining the different models that local areas use to deliver services and the rationale and benefits of different approaches.

Thirdly, 2020 also sees the return of EIF’s national conference for the first time since 2017, bringing together the whole early intervention community on 28 April 2020 at County Hall in London. The conference will address the national policy changes required to put in place a long-term plan for children’s wellbeing in the UK, and the role of early intervention in providing effective, sustainable services and support to young people and their families. High-profile keynote speakers will reflect on important changes and trends in the political and policy environment we all work in, while breakout sessions will focus on four key issues: ACEs, youth crime, disadvantage in the early years, and how social and emotional skills support children’s resilience.

Finally, the biggest priority for EIF in the year ahead will be continuing to make the case for more investment in and prioritisation of effective early intervention. We usually know when and what the key moments will be to influence national decision-making – when the green and white papers are due, when budgets and spending reviews are scheduled to take place. We hope to see some clarity early in the new year on what the key opportunities to make real change happen for children will be and when they will happen in 2020.

Meanwhile, we will be working alongside local authorities and their partners to make sure effective early intervention is at the heart of local practice and decision-making. At the same time, we will continue to work closely with policymakers in the Cabinet Office, HM Treasury and funding departments who are preparing for the spending review, to ensure that supporting all children to achieve their full potential is at the heart of domestic policy-making for the next three years.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is CEO at What Works for Early Intervention and Children's Social Care.