Early help is everyone’s business: providing wide-ranging support to the families who need it most
Kaya Comer-Schwartz describes her local experience of sustaining an integrated system of support for children and families. Cllr Comer-Schwartz is deputy leader and executive member for children, young people and families at Islington borough council in north London, and took part in the closing panel debate at our national conference in early December.
In an area like Islington, which has high rates of child poverty and deprivation, early intervention isn’t only vital, it is the only way to ensure we can support our young people. For many children in our borough, and similar boroughs across the country, not reaching them early in their life can mean they got lost in a cycle of school exclusions, contact with the youth justice system and unemployment later in life.
That is why it is so important to promote ‘early help as everyone’s business’. As a local authority, our ambition is to build on the success of our integrated Bright Start early childhood model, in which council, health and voluntary sector services for families from pregnancy to age 5 work together. We want to extend this way of working from cradle to grave, making sure that any problems are identified as early as possible and that the right support is provided in a timely way.
Our early help services work with around 1,600 families each year, and data shows that this support is having a tangible impact on the lives of our residents. 64% of children in Islington who are eligible for free school meals achieved a Good level of development, which is significantly higher than the 55% rate seen across England as a whole; the number of contacts and referrals to children’s social care has decreased; and the number of Islington young people entering into criminal justice system has fallen to record lows in recent years.
Early intervention can avoid issues for schools, youth services, community safety teams as well as health services and the police further down the line. That’s why early help isn’t just a children’s issue, it is a key issue for the council and partners holistically.
The pandemic has exacerbated challenges for local authorities across the country face in tackling social issues. The free school meals row in the autumn has highlighted the impact of food poverty on young people; remote learning has shown the impact of digital exclusions amongst our least well-off households; and we have seen the importance of engaging local Black and minority ethnic families to ensure services deliver the right support to at-risk groups.
There is still work to do to ensure that early help is seen as the wide-ranging support package it should be. Government budget cuts have made this harder, but through collaboration and partnership working between local authorities, police, health services and community organisations, we will continue to deliver early intervention for the families that need us most, and in the hope of giving young people the best possible start in life.