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Staging an intervention on early intervention


1 Nov 2018

Julie Bentley, Chief Executive at Action for Children, explains why early intervention is a crucial part of their mission, and why she agrees that serious, positive changes are required.

Early intervention is in Action for Children’s DNA. I’ve seen this myself on the visits I have undertaken to our services across the UK since I started as Chief Executive in the summer. We provide over 550 services, but at the heart of all of them is the belief that the right intervention, at the right time, can make all the difference to childhoods and children’s life chances.

This week, our colleagues at the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) have restated the case for early intervention to policymakers.

At its simplest, early intervention is a straightforward concept: stepping in when problems are first spotted to stop them getting worse. At its worst, early intervention is viewed as a silver bullet, a single solution to the complexities of disadvantage that blight too many children’s lives.

EIF’s report is clear that early intervention can help children and their families and deliver wider, longer-term financial benefits – but realising its full potential requires overcoming some major systemic challenges.

The most obvious one is a suitable level of long-term investment. Without this councils don’t have the resources to properly fund the services needed to identify children and young people and match their needs with the right evidence-based interventions.

The reality is that local authorities have faced swingeing cuts in their budgets. Our own research has shown that, since 2010, over £2.4 billion has been cut from central government funding for local authority children’s services. Councils have tried to limit reductions in frontline spending, but their efforts are unsustainable in the long-run. Local authorities now face an expected £3 billion funding gap by 2024/25.

EIF refers to our Turning the Tide report last year (undertaken with NCB and The Children’s Society), which estimated funding on early intervention will fall by 72 per cent in this decade. It is for this reason that, last week, Action for Children joined more than 120 children’s organisations in asking the Chancellor to put children at the heart of this week’s budget.

All this helps to explain why too often now we are seeing children who are stuck in a Revolving Door, where they have to be referred a number of times before they receive help from social services for serious issues like abuse, neglect and family dysfunction – meaning opportunities to help earlier are being missed.

The EIF report is critical of the short-term thinking that is pervasive in policymaking, and points out that the benefit of early intervention is often of a long-term nature. In our services, we work with children who have a range of complex needs. By the time a child reaches a point where an intervention is provided, the problems they are facing may have set them on a path that will take years to address fully.

Policy-makers and service providers need to work together to build a society in which we are investing in our children for the long term, in order that we see reductions in social and health care budgets in the future. The level of disinvestment in early years is crippling, but at the same time, we must also see smarter commissioning, so that we can do more with less.

What’s needed is an appreciation of the evidence base of the potential of the long-term positive impact of investment in early intervention, and a sense of realism that understands that the prize is improved longer-term outcomes for those children as they become adults, as well as for society more widely.

Overcoming the structural barriers must be a shared endeavour at a national and local level. Political commitment and strong leadership from both politicians and service providers are needed.

Councillors must be focussed on the type of local community they want for children and young people in the decades ahead, rather than on the savings needed in the next 12 months. This requires determined leadership in the face of pressing funding priorities – which isn’t easy, when so many feel they have been put in an impossible position.

At a national level, we need to move away from the siloed nature of political decision-making. The drive for quick wins serves no one well in the long run. Ministers should consider carefully the report’s call for a new cross-government taskforce on early intervention to make this a priority across Whitehall.

At Action for Children, we aim to help give children the Best Start in Life, a Safe and Stable Home and to Build Sound Minds. There is no question to me that early intervention is a crucial part of our shared mission, and that now is the moment for a set of serious, positive changes to realise its massive potential.