No time to waste in boosting early intervention

By Nickie Aiken | 22 July 2019

‘Early intervention’ and ‘preventative services’ aren’t just buzzwords. They describe a common-sense approach to providing support and transforming the lives of the most vulnerable young people in our communities. Who can argue against taking action early and preventing problems from getting worse?

Local government has certainly put a huge amount of effort into boosting early intervention approaches in recent years. There are countless examples of councils being proactive and innovative to support young people and keep them safe, even though the financial environment makes this increasingly challenging.

With the aim of improving our understanding of effective practice and the financial pressures facing children’s services, London Councils commissioned a study by the independent research consultancy Isos Partnership. The researchers analysed detailed financial data from the London boroughs and undertook extensive qualitative fieldwork among London children’s services departments.

In many ways, the results of the research are hugely positive. The value of preventative services shone through time and again. Early intervention programmes across London are creating higher quality, responsive provisions that prevent needs from escalating, helping to manage costs.

The evidence showed that despite the financial climate, boroughs were finding ways of putting in place good-quality early intervention and preventative services, which have allowed London to buck the national trend of growing looked after population.  

However, there are some very significant challenges facing us in London. A shift in the nature of vulnerability means different questions are being asked of our children’s services departments.

One of the issues highlighted in our wide-ranging report is the complexity of a growing cohort of adolescents entering the care system who are difficult to find appropriate care placements for.

This group often includes adolescent males with complex social, emotional, and mental health needs, possibly with autism or ADHD (both diagnosed and undiagnosed), presenting with challenging behaviour. Many of these young people also present with contextual safeguarding issues, showing signs of involvement as either victims or perpetrators of crime and gang activity, or vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation.

A young person from this cohort who needs an urgent placement can be very difficult to accommodate; local authorities sometimes have to ring more than a hundred providers across the country before finding a placement that meets the young person’s needs.

In Westminster, we took the difficult decision to cut funding for youth services. But the rising tide of gang violence and county lines drug activity led us to rethink this approach. We recognised the need to be bold and admit we were wrong. We changed our position when circumstances dictated – and the government needs to follow suit.

Our new report calls on the government to ensure early intervention is adequately funded in future – particularly considering that the end of the Troubled Families programme is fast approaching. Without the continuation of the Troubled Families grant, many local authorities will see their ability to provide early help significantly diminished.

We are all familiar with dealing with the pressure of the ever-tighter squeeze on budgets and the subsequent accumulation of overspends. London boroughs have endured a 63% reduction in our core funding since 2010. Early intervention with families is a vital part of keeping demand down and improving outcomes for some of our most vulnerable young people, yet these non-statutory services are being stripped to the bone to create savings. Across 27 London boroughs, spending on targeted and universal youth services fell by £10.5 million between 2014/15 and 2017/18.

Given the significant budgetary pressures facing children’s services, London Councils is concerned that future performance in this vitally important service area will be put at risk. This isn’t a London-specific issue, but the numbers are stark: across all 33 London local authorities the total in-year shortfall in funding across both Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and children’s social care came to £185 million in 2017/18. This shortfall is driven both by flatlining budgets and increased demand.

Our new research makes it crystal clear that urgent action is needed to address the sustainability of funding for children’s social care and SEND – and that must include early intervention.

The research puts forward recommendations for local authorities and central government aimed at addressing the financial pressures in the system and rebooting the powers of local authorities to manage demand effectively.

The solutions are not as simple as just pouring in more money, though additional funding is undoubtedly needed These issues also require a multi-level collaborative response – from local authorities and from government departments – to maximise the impact of current resources, redress incentives for decisions that lead to increasing costs, and provide local government with the levers it needs to manage demand.

Early intervention and preventative services are a crucial part of this. They are high-value, high-impact services that need long-term support and sustainable funding. Considering the difference these services can make to the lives of our most vulnerable children, we shouldn’t settle for anything less.   

Cllr Nickie Aiken is London Councils’ Executive member for Schools and Children’s Services

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