Understand what early help means, why it matters and how it can be improved

What is early help?

‘Early help’ describes any service that supports children and families as soon as problems emerge.

Examples of early help services include:

  • Parenting support
  • Play and activity groups
  • Emotional health and wellbeing support
  • Communication and language support

Early help (sometimes referred to as ‘early intervention’) services are provided by local authorities. The type of support on offer can vary a lot. Many services will provide information and advice to support families. This can be offered in a one-to-one setting or as part of a group. They may also help families find solutions to specific problems.

Who is early help for?

There are early help services for parents, children or whole families. All early help is voluntary – families do not have to participate if they don’t want to.

Early help could provide support at any stage in a child or young person’s life. Some are more likely to need this support than others, such as:

  • Children in or leaving care
  • Children with disabilities
  • Young parents
  • Families facing abuse and conflict
  • Low-income families

Children and families can access early help services in their local area. These may be at schools, health centres or through charities and voluntary organizations.

A young female social worker greeting and shaking hands with a a young teenage boy

Why is early help important?

Early help can prevent children from coming to harm. When families face problems, getting the right support, at the right time, is essential. It can be what stops a minor problem becoming a crisis.

Unfortunately, we’re not providing enough early help in the UK. The system is focused instead on helping children only once they are in crisis. This doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t wait for a health emergency before seeing your doctor.

Stepping in as soon as problems arise helps provide safe and happy childhoods. It helps keep families together. And it means children and young people are better prepared as they enter adulthood.

If we didn’t have access to early help services, we probably would have gone down the route of splitting as a family. We were on the verge of that, we were at rock bottom. If it wasn’t for those services God knows where we would have been now, they really picked us up, and helped us, and still are.

Barry, whose family received support from Action for Children’s early help services

Does early help work?

Early help has lots of positive social, health and behavioural outcomes for children and families.

Evidence shows that investing in early help services leads to fewer young people going into care or needing intensive social work.

More than 30,000 children go into care each year in the UK – that’s one every 17 minutes. Many of these children might have stayed with their families had they accessed early help.

Early help services can also save local authorities money. The social services needed when families are in crisis are expensive. Money is being wasted simply because we are reaching children too late.

A Muslim mother, father, son and daughter are indoors in a living room. The parents are sitting on the sofa, and the daughter is laughing while being tickled.

What needs to change?

Early help is an essential public service. But there isn’t enough of it to meet demand and it has been heavily affected by funding cuts. Over 60,000 opportunities are missed to offer early help every year.

Action for Children is calling for change in three areas:

1. Providing early help needs to be a legal requirement

The government has guidance that highlights the importance of early help. Yet local authorities are not legally required to provide it. With a legal duty in place, early help services can be protected from budget cuts. It will help improve the standard of services available too.

2. Increase spending on early help services

Due to funding cuts, and the rising cost of social care, spending on early help has dropped by 21% in five years following 2015-16. Local authorities cannot provide the services families need without the right funds.

3. More data collection on early help services

There is no national data on early help services as local authorities are not required to share this. But this information is needed to determine what is available, what is working and how it can be improved.

At Action for Children, we speak up for children and make sure their voices are heard.

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