Unlocking early intervention: key messages from the Allen Review

January 4, 2011

The front cover of “Early Intervention: The Next Steps” contains a startling image- the brain of a normal three year old child next to that of one who has suffered extreme neglect. Even to the untrained eye the differences between the two CT scans are clear; children who are neglected have significantly smaller brains than those who grow up in stable households.

Allen’s report focuses heavily on the importance of early development and urges the government to take extra measures to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, are socially, cognitively and psychologically ‘school ready’ at the age of five. iMPOWER particularly welcomes his recommendation that a cross party consensus is needed to build a solid foundation for long term intervention programmes and that the government must foster an environment that ensures best practice techniques are shared. The report also notes the success of interventions such as Family Nurse Partnerships, which gives invaluable support to first time mothers – particularly young mothers, and advocates the roll out of these initiatives.

These recommendations are sensible, but do they actually reveal anything new? The answer, arguably, is no. While the strong focus on early years development is important there is little in the report which is not already clear to those who work in Children’s Services.

One of Allen’s initiatives is the development of fifteen local Early Intervention Places to pioneer best practice programmes. Establishing which preventative investments are the most effective is imperative but we believe it would be more useful to encourage all local authorities to share their experiences, learn from mistakes and develop best practice. Collaboration and honesty are essential to improving the nation’s child protection and the government could play a vital role in removing the competitive barriers which exist between councils. In suggesting that only fifteen local authorities should be used to pioneer the best practice programmes, Allen risks creating a divide; focusing on the achievements of councils which are already performing well rather than assisting those which are struggling will not help to reach the most vulnerable children.

The backdrop of economic uncertainty against which early intervention campaigns must be developed is not adequately addressed in the report. Cuts to local authority budgets have been confirmed and now more than ever, directorates need to justify every penny spent. Intervention in later life is both expensive and ineffective so preventative investment is crucial to curbing long term costs and improving outcomes for vulnerable children. For example we know that youth crime is reported to cost the economy at least £8.5 billion per annum and that the total cost of drug misuse is around £77 billion; the nation wastes significant resources tackling these problems which could have been negated with earlier intervention.

Allen notes that intervention programmes will pay for themselves in future savings but does little to suggest how local authorities will find the upfront investment needed. Nor does he outline the robust measures which are needed to evaluate current strategies, allowing councils to focus on the best programmes, and to change tack if interventions are proving ineffective. iMPOWER’s work with local authorities has given us a clear picture of the challenges facing Children’s Services. Our projects are increasingly geared towards identifying efficiencies but are underpinned by the principle that councils should not slash services to generate quick savings. We know that effective early intervention is crucial not only to improving the lives of children but also to helping Children’s Services to reduce their expenditure on families with complex and persistent needs.

The principle aim of local authorities is to provide services to improve the lives of people in their area. We live in a society where knowledge is power, financial resources are limited and quantifying outcomes is essential. Although based on sound fundamental principles, the Allen Review stops short of making the practical recommendations which are needed to ensure real improvements in early intervention provision.

Alix Cordell, assistant director, iMPOWER Consulting

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