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Responding to crisis: maximising the potential of early intervention to support all children and young people through lockdown and beyond


7 Dec 2020

Ahead of the EIF national conference on Tuesday, Barnardo’s Corporate Director of Development & Innovation, Michelle Lee-Izu describes their experiences responding to the pandemic, and makes the case for long-term partnerships working at the right scale and in the right places as a vital part of the Covid recovery phase. Michelle 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.

Few people are fortunate enough to get through life without facing a crisis. And for many, only early intervention prevents that crisis becoming a catastrophe. The Covid-19 crisis put thousands of children at catastrophic risk, particularly in Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. At Barnardo’s, we immediately looked to avert that catastrophe through an early intervention partnership.

We have had clear evidence for a decade that, for children and young people in particular, evidence-based programmes of early intervention can overturn a crisis to provide a lifetime of opportunity.

The benefits for wider society too provides a win-win on a scale that provides a rare policy opportunity.

So, children and young people below the threshold for statutory intervention were central to our bid to the Department for Education in early 2020 to establish the See, Hear, Respond Partnership in response to Covid-19. The department responded brilliantly, recognising the value of bringing multiple charities together in one programme of early intervention.

See, Hear, Respond reached out to teachers, GPs, the police and social workers, and asked them to let us know about the early signs of harm in children and young people that they encountered. As the messaging filtered out, and particularly when schools reopened, the referrals started to flood in, reaching 3,500 a week.

From a standing start in mid-June to the end of November, we supported more than 37,600 children and young people through the See, Hear, Respond partnership. Of these children, 38% were from BAME communities and 30 of our 82 partners were particularly well-placed to support them, because they are firmly rooted in the communities themselves.

One of thousands of examples is a 13-year-old child with learning disabilities and autism who lost all service support during lockdown. There was a risk that he might never cope with getting back to school at this critical time in his life, and his mum’s mental health also deteriorated. Our partnership established a programme of support for him and his mum, helping her to support continued learning, take encouragement from her son’s progress, and watch him return to school with the emotional support he needed.

The death rate for Black women in childbirth is five times higher than for white women – a disparity highlighted in a recent Joint Select Committee report on Black people, racism and human rights. In another example of See, Hear, Respond’s work, 350 new parents from BAME communities have benefited from vital antenatal and postnatal support through WhatsApp, with professional help from midwives, health visitors and physiotherapists.

Bringing children, parents, experts and schools together in one coordinated response has often been the key to success. The work of the See, Hear, Respond partnership has complemented local authority programmes and, in many cases, helped to identify otherwise-hidden children who have now been referred onwards into early help or statutory support.

Our programme board included representatives from the Local Government Association and other key statutory organisations including NHS England and the police, to ensure that our delivery framework was founded on cooperation, not competition. We helped build capacity and skill within many smaller charities supporting BAME communities too, providing a long-term legacy.

In an incredibly challenging year, our partnership has delivered a major programme for the Department for Education on time and on budget, meeting or exceeding all targets, and helping tens of thousands of children and young people. We have also demonstrated the feasibility of operating a large-scale national programme – including national services such as online counselling – which blends with local delivery when face to face intervention is required.

See, Hear, Respond begs the question: what next?

The economic impacts of Covid-19 will last a generation, and the need for evidence-based early intervention will grow. See Hear Respond was a short-term response to an immediate need. But we need to take the long view to make a difference at the scale required, and I can see at least three ways in which we need to evolve our early intervention, particularly for children and young people in BAME communities.

First, digital services are not a panacea. They have played a key role in See, Hear, Respond’s support for children and young people, and may offer the most cost-effective early intervention for children and young people in the earliest stages of some types of crisis. But for many children, a crisis has several dimensions and some of these can only be discovered and addressed in face-to-face early intervention. Our challenge, then, is to build hybrid services which provide the very best intervention, delivered at the right scale and place, at precisely the right time.

Second, NHS proposals this month to strengthen integrated care systems are consistent with Barnardo’s’ belief that good mental health, for example, is best delivered when children, families, health and social care professionals, and schools, work together as equal partners. I particularly welcome the NHS’s proposal for delivery through ‘NHS providers, local government, primary care and the voluntary sector working together in each place ... built around primary care networks ... in neighbourhoods’.

Third, long-term partnerships are essential to fully unstick the most intractable problems in society. Early intervention offers long-term solutions, but the true value can be missed or lost in the whirlwind of short-term contracts, which can also conceal strategies that are simply not working. Long-term partnerships provide the timeframe needed to measure outcomes and continuously improve the solutions on offer, to deliver meaningful change. This applies not only at the local level, but will best be achieved when key government departments, including education, justice and the Home Office, work in partnership on early intervention strategies for children and young people too.

See, Hear, Respond was a short-term necessity. Here at Barnardo’s, we remain focused with our many partners on delivering the essential long-term solutions through early intervention for the most vulnerable children and young people in society.