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No time to reflect: what 2020 has taught us about local support for children and families, and what must happen now


4 Dec 2020

Ahead of the EIF national conference on Tuesday, ADCS president Jenny Coles surveys the landscape of local early help and family support in these ‘Covid times’, and highlights the opportunities that lie in finding new solutions to some longstanding challenges. Jenny will be taking part in our closing panel debate, on what’s required to put early intervention at the heart of a children’s agenda.

At any other time, this point in the year would offer up opportunities for reflection and taking stock – but 2020 has been a year unlike any other in living memory. Although we’re still very much in the response phase of this global public health crisis, the news of several viable vaccines and a falling R-rate after the latest national lockdown means our thoughts can begin to turn more firmly towards the restoration and recovery phase for children’s services.

The pandemic has shone a bright light on a host of inequalities in this country, bringing the differences between disadvantaged children and young people and their more affluent peers into sharp relief. During the initial lockdown, the government was very focused on children and young people’s exposure to hidden harms and lost learning. Now that schools have returned, the seemingly endless list of practical and logistical difficulties in keeping them Covid-safe and open to learners is understandably taking up a lot of focus, but those hidden harms still exist. We also know that the circumstances of growing numbers of children and families are significantly deteriorating as a result of the ongoing impact of Covid-19 (as evidenced by growing food bank usage and the daily increases in claims for free school meals).

Directors of children’s services (DCSs) continue to call for children, young people and families to be at the heart of national recovery plans, and the Prime Minister has committed to tackling the country’s ‘great unresolved challenges’ as part of the recovery phase. There are so many challenges ahead, but acting on the wider societal conditions to prevent future misery, harm and costs down the line feels more important than ever.

It’s been hard to successfully make the business case for renewed investment in early intervention with the Treasury to date, but the events of 2020 will hopefully have fostered a new appreciation of the value of early help and support as well as prevention. As EIF has rightly pointed out in the past, the benefits are much wider than short-term cashable savings: acting early on childhood problems doesn’t only help the individual, it contributes to healthier, happier and more productive communities too.

Renewed investment in this area was one of our top priorities in ADCS’s submission to the now delayed three-year spending review. In it, we also began to sketch out how existing local authority funding could be reconfigured to better effect. There are broader opportunities that don’t simply involve someone else picking up the bill to keep things the way they have always been. Greater flexibilities to join up all available public funding in a locality, for example, would reduce duplication and help deliver the outcomes we’re all working towards. After a decade of austerity, it’s clear we can’t carry on as we are: we can’t tip the balance without bringing together our combined expertise, capacity, ambition and resource.

The Troubled Families programme underpins our family support infrastructure, and while DCSs warmly welcomed the recent extension of funding for the scheme for 2021/22, we desperately need longer-term solutions. If the next iteration of the programme was mainstreamed instead of remaining as a standalone initiative, this could make the funding go further, helping us reach out earlier, draw in our partners and improve outcomes for children and families via a comprehensive, all-ages multi-agency prevention strategy. The contribution schools, early years and further education settings can make should not be underestimated. In fact, the value of this join-up between education and social care to have ‘eyes on’ vulnerable and disadvantaged children has been clearly illustrated during the pandemic.

To say the last nine months have been difficult is an understatement. There have been many challenges and more remain. However, opportunities for fundamental and lasting change are there for the taking: let’s make sure we reach out and grab them with both hands. The children and families we work with can’t afford for us not to.