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Why supporting local evaluation is vital to developing the evidence on the impact of early help


20 Mar 2019

EIF director of policy & practice looks at how local areas can work towards higher-quality evaluations of a widespread and high-profile form of early intervention: early help.

Nationally, there is ongoing debate about the extent to which early help makes a difference to children’s outcomes. This is an important question to be asking, but one that currently we cannot answer robustly enough.

As set out in our recent work Realising the potential of early intervention, there are a range of early intervention approaches which have been shown to improve outcomes for the children who receive them. While there is clear potential to improve long-term outcomes at population level, we haven’t yet proved this in the UK beyond evaluations of individual programmes.

While there are many evaluations of individual programmes that have made a difference to children and families (see the EIF Guidebook), and lots of qualitative evidence on the difference families feel that early help has made, there is a lack of good-quality evidence about the impact of local early help systems on outcomes. We have not found evaluations of the impact of local early help offers that we would consider robust.

This is perhaps less surprising than it appears. Generating good-quality evidence of impact – particularly of complex systems involving multiple agencies, services and practitioners – is difficult. It takes time, and requires capacity, resources and capability, all of which are in short supply in local services.

But this lack of evidence matters. It matters because it makes it difficult to know which approaches are most promising. Without evidence to guide decisions, time and resources may be being wasted repeatedly innovating, rather than testing, learning and building on previous knowledge.

It also matters because the lack of data on the impact of early help services makes it difficult to make the case for investment in early help.

This is not a good place to be. Locally, as authorities try to find savings, there is a real danger early help services are cut – not because they don’t work, but because they haven’t been evaluated and so there is no evidence to show that they do work and so should be retained.

Nationally, as well, this is problematic, in the run-up to a spending review where evidence for the impact of early help services will be requested. The absence of population-level evidence should not be used as an excuse to withdraw funding from services that have been shown to make a difference at an individual level. And in the absence of this much-needed evidence, the question about whether early help ‘works’ (by which we mean having evidence of improving at outcomes for children) has tended to become a debate about the relationship between levels of spend on early help and levels of spend at higher tiers of need or outcomes related to the child protection system.  

A number of studies have failed to find a relationship between how much an area spends on early help and the number of children in Children’s Social Care (see NAO or LGA). But the absence of these patterns in the data does not tell us about the effectiveness of early help services. Greater spending on early help won’t necessarily lead to lower costs in children’s social care, and the relationship between these two things is affected by wider factors as well. Early help is unlikely to reduce pressure on children’s social care in the short term because the needs of families might be too entrenched – and even where demand for services is reduced, this won’t always immediately reduce the amount of money needed to run services at local level.

And of course, sometimes effective early intervention or help services can increase demand for children’s social care, by bringing families’ needs to the attention of services. To answer questions about the effectiveness of early help services requires evaluation of impact, otherwise all we are doing is looking at trends and generating hypotheses.  

It is also problematic to judge the impact of early help solely through the lens of the child protection system. While well-targeted, skilled early help can reduce the need for becoming involved with social care for some families, it may not improve things or be the right approach for others. It is also important that we don’t lose sight of the wider impacts that we know effective early intervention or early help can achieve beyond social care outcomes, such as improving attainment or behaviour, preventing crime, and providing children with the social and emotional skills they need to withstand risks, achieve positive goals and succeed in life.

We urgently need more good-quality impact evaluation of early help services. This week we are publishing guidance that aims to make a contribution to this by setting out six principles for how impact evaluation might be done. We know that applying these principles in the current financial climate might feel unfeasible for councils and their partners. Action is needed centrally, to put in place the support local areas need to develop and implement systems to robustly evaluate their early help arrangements. This requires leadership from central government. It should not be left to the charitable sector to demonstrate the system-level effectiveness of early help.

The forthcoming spending review provides an opportunity to provide resources for local evaluation of early help systems. This should be a priority if we are to make some much-needed progress in filling this gap in the evidence base for early intervention in the UK.

About the author

Donna Molloy

Donna is director of policy & practice at EIF.