Making the most of the Spending Review investment 

By Steph Waddell | 28 October 2021

We are pleased to see investment going into support for children and families through the Spending Review and focusing on areas we know can make a difference to children’s lives: support for breastfeeding, parenting programmes, a focus on maternal mental health, and support for families with multiple and complex needs. This is a much-needed injection of cash into services under significant strain. It signals the Government’s confidence in the potential of early intervention to improve lives and save money by reducing the demand on acute services in the longer term.  

The decision to invest in expanding the Supporting Families Programme makes good sense. We know that it has had an impact on a range of outcomes for families with multiple and complex problems, including a reduction in the risk of children being taken into care. The expansion of the programme creates capacity to support more of the families facing the most challenging problems, including domestic abuse or harmful conflict between parents, parental mental health problems, or drug or alcohol misuse.  

Of course, this investment is limited. It’s crucial, therefore, that it is deployed in a way that delivers the best possible service for children and families.  

First, the expanded programme needs to reach more of the families with the most complex needs. This should include families where there may be a level of risk to a child, some of whom may have been identified as Children in Need and have a social worker.  

Secondly, we need to strengthen the programme by investing in workforce development. We know that the practical, holistic support offered through the programme can help families with multiple and complex needs. We also know that these families often need more intensive support with family functioning and family relationships, which needs to be delivered by skilled and highly trained practitioners. We could increase the impact of the programme through central support and investment in training and development, based on an understanding of the strongest practice models and approaches. Indeed, we need to build capacity right across the children and families workforce, including health visiting, midwifery, and family support services, and ensure that these professional roles are valued and properly supported. 

We can also strengthen the programme by increasing the availability of programmes designed to address particular family difficulties, prioritising those shown to work through rigorous evaluation. These programmes can complement the help given by a family support worker. It’s unlikely that any one service will make a significant difference for families that are facing complex, multi-layered problems, and so an integrated package of well-evidenced support will often be necessary.  

Evidence-based interventions have been tested and refined in response to evaluation findings over years and sometimes decades. Where these programmes exist, they are often our best bet. There are many understandable reasons why evidence-based programmes aren’t more widely commissioned in local areas, including misgivings about cost, a preference for locally developed services, and concerns about how easy or otherwise they are to implement within the local context. Increasing uptake of these programmes requires a significant amount of central incentivisation and support, but this would be a wise investment.  

Lastly, it’s imperative that we take this opportunity invest in further evaluation to understand more about what works within the programme, how it works, and for whom. There are urgent gaps in our understanding of how best to work with families suffering domestic abuse, for example, or where there is parental drug or alcohol misuse, and only a handful of approaches have yet been able to demonstrate an impact on the risk of abuse or neglect. This area has not yet seen sustained investment in the high-quality evaluations that are needed to understand what works.  

These three steps – to ensure the Supporting Families Programme reaches children and families with the most pressing and complex needs, that the support offered is the right help that’s most likely to have an impact, and that we evaluate approaches robustly – could mean that we get to the end of the Spending Review period with confidence that this investment has improved the lives of children and families, and with a far better understanding of what works to reduce the risk of harm and improve a range of outcomes for children.  

Steph Waddell is assistant director of the Early Intervention Foundation 

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