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Support for vulnerable children ‘driven by what is easiest to measure’

The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) and the University of Cambridge warn that support for vulnerable children is being driven by what is easiest to measure, rather than the community-based and family-orientated services envisioned in the Children Act.

‘Early Help’ is one element of support that services should make available to all families, and can help prevent children from reaching a crisis where interventions by social workers are necessary.

NCB and Cambridge University have found convincing evidence that early help improves the lives of children and families, preventing unnecessary distress and harm which would require considerable extra expense to the public purse.

However, a lack of a clear shared definition of early help, including little agreement over the thresholds for stepping in to provide support, means that measuring what works is difficult.

In the void, it has been difficult for local and national policy-makers to make the case for early help, leading to an overemphasis on ‘late intervention’ with families in the form of statutory social work investigations.

Researchers found the situation has been compounded by a decade of severe cuts to local authority budgets for children. Furthermore, the government has shied away from tackling thorny issues like poverty and poor housing, which are often closely linked to family troubles.

The National Children’s Bureau is calling for:

  • A legal duty on local authorities and statutory safeguarding partners to provide early help to children and families. This should encompass a broad definition of early help, including support to alleviate the impact of poverty and poor housing.
  • The Department for Education should seek to reduce variations in thresholds for early help by providing clear guidance and training on assessing eligibility.
  • Government should develop a national outcomes framework for early help services, building on the work of the Supporting Families programme. This framework should be co-produced with children and families.
  • The Treasury should increase its funding in order to support implementation of this new duty, factoring in the levels of poverty within a local authority area.
  • The impact of these measures should be rigorously evaluated over a number of years. In particular, this evaluation should include use of routinely collected data from different services, to explore the outcomes for children and families receiving early help and social care interventions over time.

girl covering her face with both hands

Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children Bureau, said: ‘If a doctor sees someone in pain, they step in immediately. Yet when it comes to vulnerable children and families, their suffering is allowed to fester.

‘One of the central aims of the Children Act was to give a sense of urgency to authorities when they take action to protect the welfare of children as soon as they can. But progress has stalled, and funding cuts mean that services often let children and families’ lives spin out of control before doing anything.

‘It’s time for a rethink of how we configure services – and that action starts with Government lifting the pressures on struggling families, and not ignoring factors like poor quality, over-crowded housing and poverty.’

Josh MacAlister, chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, said: ‘When parents need help to raise their children because they are caught in abusive relationships, because they are caring for disabled children or because they have an addiction, our response is too often to investigate rather than help.

‘Too often our approach to families default towards the firm hand of safeguarding when more often the appropriate response would be an open hand of support.

‘This report, and the evidence base it draws on, is a hugely welcome building block for the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and I look forward to working with the National Children’s Bureau to learn more about their recommendations.’

Responding to the report, cllr Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said:

‘As this report highlights, support for children and families goes far beyond the remit of children’s services.

‘Councils stand ready to work with the government to ensure no child is left behind as we recover from the pandemic and have called for a cross-Whitehall strategy to improve children’s lives and put children at the centre of our Covid-19 recovery.

‘Rising demand for support and funding pressures have meant that councils have been forced to divert limited resources away from preventative services and into support for children most at risk.

‘By reinstating the £1.7bn lost from the Early Intervention Grant since 2010, the Government could ensure councils can help children and families earlier, rather than waiting for problems to reach crisis point.’

Photo Credit – Caleb Woods

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