Where next for evidence-based early intervention in 2021?
EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne focuses on what we've learned about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on children and young people, and what needs to happen in the year ahead to support all children and families to bounce back strongly.
Today was EIF’s national conference. To open the day, I reflected on the extraordinary year that 2020 has been, and on what lies ahead for early intervention in 2021.
Early intervention in 2020
Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on lives and communities across the UK and around the world. But some have been more badly affected than others. We have seen older people and those with existing health conditions hit hard. Recent research has shown us that Black people are twice as likely to catch coronavirus than White people, and we know that those from Black and South Asian ethnic backgrounds are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill and dying. The virus has shone a light on unacceptable health inequalities that must be addressed.
For children, while they are less likely to be seriously impacted by the virus itself, the indirect impact on their lives is enormous and wide-reaching. There has (rightly) been a lot of focus in the last few months on how children and young people have been affected by exam results, the return to school and university, and the struggle to make the transition into work, given the impact of Covid-19 on the economy. There has also been a focus on the how the most vulnerable children are being affected, but we have seen less activity to try and minimise this impact.
It is clear that identifying and protecting vulnerable children has become much more challenging during the pandemic, with face-to-face services and home visits severely restricted. And we’ve all wondered about the likely impact on children of stress, uncertainty, not seeing friends or family, worries about catching the virus, parents losing their jobs, and so on. We know that some families are living in very close proximity, sometimes in cramped housing, and are under increased financial strain and uncertainty. This will have led to many children witnessing parental conflict, which our work has shown can be damaging and can affect children’s mental health and wellbeing.
The data is now starting to emerge to help us understand the actual impact of the pandemic on children. There has been a rise in the number of children exposed to domestic abuse in the home. Between March and June, calls to the NSPCC Helpline about the impact of domestic abuse on children increased by a third. This equated to one child every hour. We also know that the number of babies in England who have suffered serious injury through abuse or neglect during the pandemic is up by a fifth on the same period last year.
And of course, it will take time for the full picture of the damage done by the lockdowns to become fully apparent. The subtler signs of abuse, neglect or domestic violence are much harder to spot without home visits or other face-to-face contact.
On mental health, Covid has disrupted children and young people’s lives, and threatening their sense of structure, predictability and security, which has taken a toll on their mental health and wellbeing. Newly published data, from the Mental Health of Children and Young People in England study, shows us that children and young people’s mental health has deteriorated since 2017. And children are being significantly impacted at a time where money is getting tighter for many families. We know that almost 100,000 people used foodbanks for the first time between April and June this year, and with the rising rate of unemployment, we are likely to see numbers like this increase.
2020 has also been a year when racial equality has rightly come to the fore, after the appalling racist murder of George Floyd in the US and the protests that followed around the world. It is simply not good enough that Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority households in the UK are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as their White counterparts. It is not acceptable that young Black Caribbean children are more than twice as likely to receive a permanent school exclusion than the school population as a whole. And serious questions must be asked about why more than 50% of young people held in youth custody are from a non-White background.
The year ahead
In January, it will be 10 years since Graham Allen published his independent review for government, that led to the creation of EIF. He made a strong case then for why early intervention matters – and the case is even stronger now.
The much anticipated spending review of two weeks ago was, of course, only for one year, instead of the three years that was originally planned to cover. Many of us will have been disappointed by this, although perhaps not surprised. We welcome the investment made in the spending review announcement for support for victims of domestic abuse, additional funding for education, and continued support for the Troubled Families programme. However, it was disappointing that the government did not provide local authorities with a funding settlement which would enable serious investment in early intervention services that we know work to support children and families.
This makes next year’s longer-term settlement more important than ever. It must invest more money directly into early help services for children and families, as well as enabling local authorities to meet their statutory duties.
Although much of our work at EIF focuses on the evidence for individual interventions, we know that interventions alone will not solve these problems. It is vital that central government also takes action to tackle child poverty. And more must be done to tackle racism and racial inequalities. Work that is designed to improve outcomes for Black and Asian children, and children and young people from other ethnic minority backgrounds, will be a key part of EIF’s evidence generation, and work to change policy and practice, going forward.
As we begin to understand the huge impact the pandemic has had on vulnerable children and families, long-term investment in early intervention becomes ever more crucial. If we do not invest now, the outcomes for the most vulnerable children will be much worse in the long term. This generation of children should not have to live with the knock-on effects of the pandemic for the rest of their lives.
It is hard to think of a better way that government could achieve its ambitions to level up than by supporting all children to reach their potential, regardless of where in the country they grow up, or the family circumstances they are born into. At a time when public finances are at an all-time crisis, let’s not do the equivalent of putting our future on a high-interest credit card. We all know that not paying now is a false economy, as you just end up paying even more later. Investing early is truly the most cost-effective approach. The country simply cannot afford not to.