Sharon spoke to a fringe event on early intervention and prevention, organised by the WAVE Trust, at Labour Party Conference in Manchester.
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It’s a genuine pleasure to be able to join you to discuss the ideas and solutions that George and the WAVE Trust have to improve the wellbeing and life chances of children and families.
I met with George a few months ago, and he has presented to a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sure Start since then, but I have followed his work with the WAVE Trust for many years.
It’s quite something when you hear someone speaking who wants to achieve exactly what you want to achieve, but it’s another thing altogether when that speaker knows exactly how they want to do it, and is convincing the people in a position to make it happen that it is a worthwhile thing to do.
That is what I came away with after hearing George talk about prevention, and I’m sure you all will too.
Given that George is going to be talking about the ‘How’, I want to talk about the ‘Why’.
Why are we talking about this?
Why is spending on children a priority at a time when the economy is stalled, police are being cut and a million and one things are going on?
I’m quite realistic that there are a number of issues competing to be at the top of the political agenda, with the economy and public spending near the top.
But early intervention and prevention needn’t be distinct from those issues.
In fact, for Labour, I believe it should be central to building a sustainable and fair economy, and it should be central to how we make the most out of public funds – especially when there is less money around.
Those of us who take an interest in this area of policy will be familiar with the picture that Graham Allen used on the front of his second report – the cross sections of two 3 year old children’s brains.
One of those brains is of a normal, loved, nurtured and healthy child – the other, which is significantly smaller and less developed, is from a child who has been subject to severe neglect.
The difference between the two is the best demonstration I have seen of just how important nurture and the first couple of years is in determining life chances, and how damaging neglect can be.
If we believe that improving the life chances of children and young people from all backgrounds is both a core Labour value and crucial to the future of our country – which I do – then we need to look seriously at why that neglect occurs, and what we can do to tackle it.
We’ve had two excellent reports in the last couple of years, commissioned by the government but compiled by the Labour MPs Frank Field and Graham Allen, and we’ve had no end of warm words from Ministers - even David Cameron himself.
But what has been the reality on the ground for these services?
Well, because the government lumped together a load of funding for various early intervention programmes, bottom sliced more than 20% out of it and then removed the ringfence, we are starting to see a real reduction in the support available to families.
At the last count there were 281 fewer Children’s Centres than in May 2010, and in many areas the ones that remain are being hollowed out.
Councils are also being forced to scale back things like training for the early years workforce and subsidising highly-qualified staff in childcare settings, which the Sutton Trust recently highlighted as key to ensuring that early years settings can narrow the gap for poorer children.
Overall, more than a billion has already been removed from the early intervention grant over the three financial years we have had since May 2010, and it looks like things could be set to get worse.
I’m sure many of you will have seen the article in the Guardian last week that exposed that the government’s free childcare for disadvantaged two year old scheme is now going to be taken out of the EIG, and that vastly reduced pot rolled in with the business rates – effectively abolishing early intervention as a funding stream.
We can campaign against those cuts all we like – and we have been doing and will continue to do so - but for now they are here to stay.
As a Party, we therefore look to our leaders in local government to ensure that we are doing the best we possibly can for all children, and making the right choices.
That’s where the kind of targeted interventions that the WAVE Trust advocate come in.
But having targeted programmes in place is no good without the universal ‘front doors’ and graduated responses that services like Children’s Centres provide, because without them we will struggle to find the families most in need of help.
Labour in local government and in Parliament need to learn from the kind of data-sharing and co-location of services that some areas are already doing well.
I visited a Sure Start centre not far away from here at the beginning of the year to discuss with the professionals who are redesigning early intervention services here in Manchester how they reach those families that they struggled to before.
After lengthy negotiations, the NHS agreed to let them have a paper copy of the live birth register, that a nominated person has to go and collect, and then manually enter details into an un-networked computer.
That’s a ridiculous process, but it means they get the information which allows them to go out and meet all parents, and encourage parents to come and access the services available.
But even if you know where children and new parents are, you’re unlikely to be able to build up a relationship with them if the services you are pointing them towards don’t provide anything they want.
Unfortunately, that’s the reality in many centres at the moment, and that means that many children won’t interact with the early years staff who might be able to spot problems like disorganised attachment, and refer the family to targeted intervention services which could address them.
That’s why I like Frank Field’s idea of greater co-location of local authority services within Children’s Centres – ensuring that there is a reason for every new parent to come through the front door, meeting staff and seeing what they could get out of their local Centre.
Coming back to why we need to do this, there are two clear reasons why the Labour Party should focus on prevention and early intervention:
Firstly, because we have a moral duty to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable children…
…and secondly, because we want to build a stronger and more sustainable economy for the future.
We know that a poor first couple of years – and by poor I’m not just referring to the financial kind, but also to the quality of relationships and experiences – can have a significant impact on a child’s outcomes in later life….
…they’re more likely to have health problems…
…more likely to have language delay and communication problems…
…more likely to be behind when they start school, and stay behind throughout…
…more likely to engage in risky behaviours, such as violence, drinking, underage sex, drug use etc…
…more likely to end up going through the criminal justice or care system, and less likely to gain good qualifications and go on to further or higher education…
…and therefore more likely to be unable to hold down meaningful relationships or jobs.
We then come full circle, because those individuals are then less likely to be able to provide the kind of secure attachment that their children need to have a better chance at life than they did.
The human side of all that is bad enough, but there’s also the cost to the government, and therefore to everybody else, of all that support that they will need throughout their life.
The moral and the financial imperatives for investing in prevention and the earliest of early interventions are therefore one and the same.
Investing in early intervention has been proven time and time again to deliver financial and social returns – sometimes huge - which benefit the whole of society.
The return on investment in Nurse Family Partnerships in America was calculated at up to $34,000 per child by the age of 15 – a ratio of up to 5 to 1.
The debate is won about whether prevention programmes work - now we just need to get on with it.
Graham Allen published a list of his top intervention programmes, and I think that’s something the Government should promote and update on an ongoing basis.
Stephen Twigg has talked a lot about an independent Office for Educational Improvement, which places the onus on evidence-based programmes rather than political whims.
I think that could be extended to cover early intervention programmes as well, acting as a kind of clearing house, but also a way of sharing best practice, giving councils the confidence they need to make the switch from concentrating on solving problems when they occur, to investing in trying to ensure that those problems don’t occur in the first place.
With that in mind I’m very much looking forward to hearing from Tony about what Labour set in motion in Croydon, and from George about what Labour can do nationally to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable children, and in doing so improve the future of the whole country.