In response to continued financial pressures, a growing number of councils are being forced to reduce investment in early help services. These services aim to prevent family breakdown – reducing demand and cost for statutory services such as children’s social care. East Sussex County Council are the latest to announce a retreat to a ‘core offer’, with their Director of Children’s Services recognising that such reductions ‘target the very services that you know address the root causes of the problem.’
To those of us close enough to see how family breakdown is avoided or mitigated through non-statutory services, this is worrying trend. At IMPOWER we have seen first-hand how well designed early help, with strong system leadership, can positively impact both demand and cost (our work with Ealing and Wolverhampton Councils are both excellent examples).
A quick examination of key demand and cost data supports this. As an example, take two councils; Essex and Northamptonshire. Essex has invested in creating a local system which works to prevent, reduce and delay children entering care, while Northamptonshire has scaled back investment in (and focus on) early help. The outcomes are plain to see in the table below. Over the last ten years Northamptonshire’s children in care rate and total children’s services spend have increased dramatically. But in Essex, the children in care rate has reduced significantly, and overall spending has come down.
Comparing spend and outcomes for Essex and Northamptonshire County Councils Source: DfE data tables, 2010-17
In this specific comparison – and across the sector – there is a clear relationship between what is spent on early help services, demand for statutory services, and associated costs. This is also indicative of a cycle – more looked after children inevitably means higher spend overall, and lower funds available for preventative services.
We need to make a stronger case for investment in early help to decision-makers in central and local government, social investors and local partner agencies. As the Troubled Families Programme demonstrated, perfect attribution of cause and effect is not always possible in complex systems, so a level of leadership, courage and maturity is required.
In order for children’s services to thrive sustainably, the emphasis must be firmly on prevention and early intervention. Between now and 18th December, the Government are seeking evidence on ‘Funding and provision of local authorities’ children’s services’. At IMPOWER, we will be making a submission to demonstrate the impact of early help for children, families and communities, and urge everyone in the sector to do the same. Early help services are vital – we must fight to sustain them.