Frank Field and Graham Allen are right to champion early intervention – but our work shows we need to go one step further
by Sarah Gillinson
The ideas emerging from the six localities we are working with on the Transforming Early Years Programme, in partnership with NESTA, feel very zeitgeist. They are all working on different, better, lower cost models of support for families with very young children. They all share Frank Field and Graham Allen’s belief that by supporting families effectively in the very earliest years of a child’s life, it is possible to break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. They also share the belief of both reviews that existing services, including children’s centres, are still not reaching the families who are most in need of support.
Many of the recommendations from both reviews are very welcome. They chime strongly with what our localities are learning from their communities. We should be measuring, monitoring and responding to indicators of family well-being that can help us predict children’s life chances. Parenting support should be available to all families, with intense support targeted at the families who most need it. Professionals around families should work together, complementing each other’s expertise and responding to families’ whole lives, rather than duplicating their offers. Commissioners should support community and voluntary organisations to contribute to local services.
But proposals from our localities suggest that both reviews should go one step further. Otherwise they could fail to realise their critically important aspiration to support all families during the early years. In every one of the Transforming Early Years teams, the actions and capacity of the local community sits at the very heart of their ideas, not at the periphery. This is not because they have heard of David Cameron’s Big Society and can see the writing on the wall. It is because in exploring the needs of families in their local areas, they have found that many of the problems they face are about the norms and realities of community life. Fear of where they live. The isolation of having no-one they trust and can turn to. And the frustration of grinding daily patterns, that are all the same as the last, with no hope or idea of how to change them. They also found that many public services, including children’s centres, are the last place that families would turn to. They are seen as judgemental, elitist and unresponsive. On the basis of this, solutions cannot purely be about better public services and local organisations. They have to be, at least partly, founded in the community.
In every site then, their ideas are fundamentally about putting the community in the driving seat of support for families. This should be done in partnership with highly trained professionals, but not dominated by them. They believe this will do several things:
– Enable them to reach the most vulnerable families
– Enable support to families to be consistent, not just at crisis point
– Enable better understanding of families’ motivations and needs
– Enable professionals like social workers to work with families when they are most needed and to shape their practice to respond better to families
The sites have very different ideas for how to achieve this, varying in scale, type and ambition. They include the creation of a community shop which sells key supplies for families, and which would become a natural, local hub that begins to tackle some of the isolation and frustration felt by families. The shop would be run by community members and would become a beacon of hope that begins to tackle the helplessness people feel at changing their lives. Critically, the shop would connect highly trained peer supporters, expert in providing parenting support, with vulnerable families.
Ideas also include the handover of children’s centres to be governed and run by parents. They would offer highly trained peer supporters and would commission the services from professionals that are most valued by parents. One proposal radically refocuses service- provision around parents and children from conception to 12 weeks in the belief that this is when many parenting patterns are formed, rather than around older children.
All of these ideas agree fundamentally with the principles of both the Frank Field and Graham Allen reviews. They offer seamless transition of support from conception to school. They work with parents in recognition of families as children’s primary educators. They focus on the youngest children to create the best foundation for a happy, productive and fulfilling life. They also target the most vulnerable families with the most intense support.
The recommendations of our sites go further than those in the review. They start with communities and their needs, not organisations, and what they can offer to generate real change for families who need it most.