Literature review on the delivery and benefits of ‘early help’

There is a lack of information around who is missing out from early help and interventions may be targeted more at minimising risk and addressing short-term needs, rather than on building families’ or communities’ resilience. The evidence pointed to the need to balance quick, targeted, projects, usually addressing the high needs of a relatively small number of families, with longer-term, more universal services. These trends were aggravated by budgeting and political contexts.

The Early Intervention Foundation provides many interesting reports on this and related topics.

This rapid (but thorough) review explored the provision and benefits of early help for families, and the consensus and gaps within the current knowledge base.

We adopted the Department of Education’s ( 2018) definition for ‘early help’: ‘providing support to a child or family as soon as a problem emerges, at any point in a child’s life’. Early help is often seen as a means to address inequalities and negative outcomes for children and young people and prevent issues escalating, e.g. becoming child protection. However the evidence found indicates that the term remains vague in practice, is often not explained in relevent reports, and is generally applied to early years’ initiatives, but these are themselves diverse.

Robust measurement of outcomes is generally lacking, along with a longitudinal perspective. That said, in real life it is difficult to disentangle early help and potential outcomes from the context in which it is usually delivered. In other words, it is hard to develop or apply a universal outcomes measure which can work equally well with all families and children facing a range and combinations of very challenging circumstances, not least low income, poor housing, health needs, discimination and inequality. Most measures, data collection and evaluations were found to be short-term and difficult to compare, e.g. covering quick parenting programmes. Only a few sources detailed more generalised or longer-term early help interventions. Although once top of the policy agenda (e.g. Every Child Matters, 2003; Munro, 2011; Allen, 2011; Marmoth, 2010 and 2020 ), and seen as a key approach to address inequalities and negative outcomes for children and young people, more recently this issue has been demoted politically and is further challenged by austerity cuts to local authority budgets which affect broader and preventative measures.

To add to the complexity, while researchers, funders and policy makers might want consistent and easy to compare data, families need flexibility and responsiveness.

Read the full report here

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