Support for vulnerable children “being driven by what is easiest to measure”

New analysis of help for struggling children and families finds a lack of a shared definition of early help and a difficulty for local and national policy-makers to make the case for it, leading to an overemphasis on ‘late intervention’.

08/06/21

Support for vulnerable children “being driven by what is easiest to measure”

The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) and University of Cambridge have raised concerns that support for vulnerable children is “being driven by what is easiest to measure”.

Sharing new analysis, they say that local and national policy-makers are opting for methods that they can make a case for, rather than deliver the community-based and family-orientated services envisioned in the Children Act.

NCB and Cambridge University say they 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.

They say this means 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 difficult issues like poverty and poor housing, which are often intricately linked to family troubles.

Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the NCB, said a central aim of the Children Act to give a sense of urgency to authorities when they take action was being lost.

“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.”

“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, overcrowded housing and poverty.”

As a result of the analysis, the NCB is calling for a legal duty on local authorities and statutory safeguarding partners to provide early help to children and families, adding that this should encompass a broad definition of early help, including support to alleviate the impact of poverty and poor housing.

It says the Government should increase funding for early help and develop a national outcomes framework – co-produced with children and families – for early help services, building on the work of the Supporting Families programme.

It is also asking that the Department for Education (DfE) seeks to reduce variations in thresholds for early help by providing clear guidance and training on assessing eligibility.

The evidence, part of a five–year research project on children’s health and social care, was submitted to the Review of Children’s Social Care.

Josh MacAlister, Chair of the Review, said the report and the evidence-base it draws on is a “hugely welcome building block” for the work of the Review.

“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,” MacAlister said, adding: “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.”

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