TROUBLED FAMILIES

'We're still not doing what works in many areas'

Are the Government’s latest early years’ initiatives enough to improve the life chances for vulnerable children – or is more leadership and vision needed? Ann McGauran reports from the Early Intervention Foundation conference.

Children's minister Vicky Ford has unveiled a multi-million investment in programmes for vulnerable families. Does this signal a Government putting early intervention at the heart of a children's agenda?

Taking to the virtual stage at the Early Intervention Foundation's (EIF) recent national conference, she also announced plans to launch the procurement process for a new National Centre for Family Hubs and Integrated Services, to support areas and councils to set up new family hubs.

The Government is giving almost £4.4m to programmes aimed at reaching ‘hidden' children. Of this, an extra £4.2m will go to a coalition of major children's charities, enabling the ‘See, Hear, Respond' COVID-19 response programme to continue until March 2021.

This builds on some of the other commitments to children's services funding in the Spending Review, including £165m for the Troubled Families Programme. The Government has also invested £7.6m in the Vulnerable Children National Charities Strategic Relief fund, which provided frontline services in England and Wales to those experiencing immediate financial hardship due to the pandemic.

In her conference address, Ms Ford highlighted the Conservative manifesto commitment ‘a year ago this week to champion family hubs'.

‘We believe this hub approach of integrated services can ensure families get joined up support to overcome difficulties and build stronger relationships', she added.

The Government will also put in place ‘an evaluation innovation fund to build the evidence base on integrated family service models', she said. Ms Ford also highlighted ‘three recent milestones' in the area of early intervention. The EIF has been a ‘key partner in the Department for Education's Early Language Local Innovation and Excellence Programme'. In partnership with Public Health England, the Government had ‘trained 1,000 health visitors in supporting early language' and has published a new early language identification measure and intervention tool.

Finally, the minister said that one in three primary schools have signed up for the Government funded Nuffield Early Learning Intervention (NELI) – with ‘children receiving NELI support in reception year making on average three months of additional progress'.

But is the Government's approach on early years robust and visionary enough overall for a time when the pandemic has, said president of the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) Jenny Coles earlier this month, ‘exacerbated pre-exisiting challenges such as poverty, hunger, parental ill health and domestic abuse'?

Director of policy and practice at the EIF Donna Molloy told the plenary panel discussion: ‘We do know what works in many areas, but we are still not doing it'.

She said one example of ‘where we know what to do, but perhaps aren't doing it as much as we could be is in relation to the evidence for intensive home visiting in the early years'.

‘The simple fact is that there are some things that have been well tested, and shown to improve outcomes, and we should be delivering more of them.'

She said the ‘long-awaited three year Spending Review' next year was an opportunity to see a new concerted approach to improving life chances for vulnerable children. ‘And while it is good to see recent funding for Troubled Families, Family Hubs and so on, what we need is not individual initiatives, but clear government leadership and overall vision for vulnerable children, built on the evidence of what works to improve outcomes, backed by sufficient investment.'

Picking up the baton on investment, the ADCS president Ms Coles said: ‘There needs to be a radical rethink about how the totality of public funding in a locality can be brought together. This would reduce duplication, and help us make real progress towards the shared outcomes public services, the voluntary and community sector are all working towards – happier healthier, safer communities.'

This transformational thinking is happening across the country, ‘but not in every place' , she added – and ‘the next iteration of the Troubled Families programme could provide a national vehicle to do this'. There is plenty of thinking going on in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and beyond about the future of the programme, she told delegates.

The ADCS believes an ‘all age multi-agency prevention strategy should underpin Troubled Families', and mainstreaming this resource rather than it being a stand-alone initiative could make the funding go further, she said. ‘This would help us reach out earlier, drawing in our partners, and improving outcomes for children and families.'

In conclusion, she said there was a ‘family-shaped gap at the heart of national policy'.

She added: 'Wellbeing rather than economic performance should be at the heart of new policies to create a better and more equal society and that means stepping in as soon as possible to stop challenges from escalating or stopping them from occurring at all.'

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