New Ofsted research: Evidence the early help system isn't working

Thursday 09 November 2023
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More families need help from children's services, yet further evidence published this week shows that local authorities are struggling to provide it.

What is early help?

‘Early help’ is the name for services that support children and families before they meet the threshold for intervention from children’s social care. These services might include parenting support, play and activity groups, or more intensive services like counselling and disability support.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of families in the UK access early help support in various forms. Accessing early help services can prevent children from coming to harm and needing to go into care. In this way, early help is an essential public service.

Action for Children offers many early help services and is able to see first-hand the difference it makes to people’s lives. One example is Jessica and Billy’s (not their real names) story.

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Case study

Jessica had experienced an extremely traumatic childhood and as a result became addicted to drugs. She got clean about six years ago and early on in her recovery journey, met Mark (also not his real name). Jessica and Mark became pregnant just over a year after meeting and had a son named Billy. Mark soon became controlling and possessive of Jessica and he increasingly suffered from mental health problems. Mark stopped taking his medication and started using drugs again which caused the couple to split up.

Jessica allowed Mark to have supervised contact with Billy once he was clean and taking his medication again. One day, Mark abducted Billy during a supervised contact session. Luckily, Billy was returned safely with the help of the police. But this traumatic event left Jessica distraught and terrified for her and Billy’s safety.

It triggered my PTSD, and I got really unwell for a while after that. I was so far gone that I felt like we were being stalked. I was so on edge and would jump out of my skin at any noise, and Billy was feeling that from me and acting out. I just needed to get out this place. I was like that for 8-12 weeks - living in fear and still having to function for Billy. All his basic needs were met but that was about it.”

“I was sat on the sofa in tears, flicking through numbers of different organisations for help. I just wanted someone to help me protect my son, and that's how I came into contact with Action for Children.”

Action for Children were able to help Jessica quickly move to a new location and provide parental guidance and counselling to help her and Billy thrive in their new life.

Without Action for Children, I believe I would've been sectioned and Billy wouldn’t have been in my care right now. It literally changed our lives.”

Despite being through some tough times together, Jessica is feeling positive about the future and Billy has just started primary school.

“Me and Billy are much better than we were. We're safe. He's thriving. They've set us up for our future, and they really helped me as well as Billy, which I really needed.”

Ofsted findings

This week, Ofsted published a report on the multi-agency response to children and families who need help.

This report focused on the inspections of five multi-agency services across England and reviewed the practices of individual agencies, as well as the effectiveness of multi-agency working arrangements. This includes children’s social care, health services, schools and the police.

While their findings are based on a small sample, it gives a good indication of current practice and some of the barriers faced by children and families in need of support. It found that:

  • Agencies are finding it difficult to prioritise early help when there is a pressure on resources.
  • Local resources are not consistently well understood or used between services or in the community, meaning that some children and families face delays when trying to access support.
  • Quick access to low-level preventative support can make a big difference to the experience of children and families.
  • A responsive and skilled workforce with enough capacity is crucial for high-quality and child-centred practice.
  • The evaluation and oversight of early help is vital to address gaps in provision and track the progress of children and families.
Mother holding newborn baby

Findings align with research we've conducted into early help

We've found evidence of the same challenges in our own research. Alongside other children’s charities, we commissioned research that estimates that spending on late intervention increased from 58% of all children’s services spending in 2010–11 to 80% in 2020–21. This is in contrast to a £1.9 billion drop in spending on early intervention services for children and young people between 2010-11 and 2020-21.

Research published by the Institute for Government made similar findings.

One impact of the fall in early intervention spending is that families are missing out on early help. Our ‘Too Litte, Too Late’ report found that:

  • Not enough early help is happening and there are big variations between local authorities.
  • There are over 60,000 missed opportunities to provide early help every year.
  • Spending on early intervention has fallen and there are great differences in the level of spending across the country.
Young boy sat at table playing with a plastic box filled with sand and small colourful toys. More children playing in the background

What is the government doing?

In ‘Stable homes, built on love’, the government outlined its vision for family help services – a new approach to early help.

They want every area in England to provide families with supportive and welcoming family help services, delivered by a skilled multi-disciplinary workforce, and for family help services to provide effective and intensive support to any family facing significant challenges.

While the government has announced a number of funded work streams to achieve this, they are currently only available to a limited number of local authorities and the funding is short-term.

The government’s vision is right and if it’s delivered would mean more families get the help they need. It’s crucial that as we head towards a General Election, all political parties commit to crucial reforms and investment in the children’s social care system.

These commitments should include:

  • Increasing and protecting funding for early intervention, including early help services. This would guarantee the provision of services and help to improve the balance between early and late intervention in children’s social care.
  • Committing to investing in the roll out of family help services across all local authorities in England beyond 2025, as was recommended by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. This would reduce the postcode lottery of early help provision and help to create a shared understanding of what early help is.
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