As the dust settles post-election, the new government has indicated that early help will continue to play an important role in helping to transform the lives of the nation’s most vulnerable children and families.
When effective early help schemes designed to tackle problems such as mental health issues, poor parenting and anti-social behavior have the potential to save the public purse a reported 1.7bn a year, this is likely to be welcome news for many working in the children’s services arena.
But there are both challenges and opportunities ahead for those who are responsible for planning and delivering successful early intervention and prevention programmes.
This was a hot topic of conversation when I met up with nine senior leaders from the sector and a director of a children’s charity. There were some interesting views shared on how to provide better support sooner for children and families.
Knowing who needs what help
I was inspired to hear the senior leaders talk about the importance of technology in the drive to ensure that early help schemes are aimed at those children and families who are most in need.
Many recognised that systems needed to bring local information into the mix in an efficient and effective way to help plan schemes. This could be using postcode data to identify the geographical impact of a major employer leaving the area, for example, or looking at attendance information from schools to uncover an escalation in gang related crime. Information was seen as vital for helping authorities to spot potential risk factors which may not be flagged by national categories for vulnerability alone.
Discussions then moved to knowing what works.
One leader pointed out that it is not always easy to prove the effectiveness of early help programmes. Discussions also highlighted the fact that what works in one area may not necessarily have a real impact in another.
There was broad agreement that efforts needed to be focused on goals which are specific to individual communities. For one area, this may be reducing the number of children and young people being drawn into gangs, while in another, encouraging more vulnerable families to engage with the local children’s centre could be a key aim.
Whatever the aim, the attendees agreed that sophisticated data analysis tools could make it easier to monitor the progress being made towards the objectives for their communities.
Multi-agency working was another issue discussed on the day. There was an emphasis on the need for more effective data sharing between teams such as health, housing, schools and the police.
Information was seen as key to enabling authorities to deepen their understanding of the multiple problems faced by vulnerable families. One leader talked about a project to commission services cost-effectively across the region, and how by bringing data together, teams would be supported in shaping the provision according to the needs of the communities in which they work.
It was interesting to hear the delegates talk about the need for funding for early help schemes to come from all the partners involved. Although it was agreed that managing shared funding could prove complex, most leaders saw it valuable to have systems that can help maximise income streams and calculate the resulting savings to help ensure that all partners benefit.
Making data work harder
While many of the attendees felt that they had a wealth of information on vulnerable children and families in their area, some hinted that this data could be used more effectively to direct priorities. They wanted to see historical information used more frequently to identify trends, such as tracking fluctuations in homelessness, for instance, or school exclusions.
Attendees also saw the value in allowing staff to drill down into the data to provide a clearer picture of what help is required by a family and where. If a programme is rolled out to support lone parents with childcare provision, for example, but take-up is disappointing, authorities wanted to use the information available to them to find out why.
It was clear from the discussions which took place on the day that leaders of children’s services are thinking innovatively about how to plan and deliver successful early help.
That’s why it is so important that the technology authorities use is designed to support the changing needs of the different teams in contact with children and their families – helping them to make a real difference in the months and years ahead.