Sharon was invited to address a conference organised by Govnet on services for children and young people, held at the Arlington Conference Centre in Camden.
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Thank you Bev (Hughes, Baroness Hughes of Stretford).
It’s my pleasure to join you today to talk about what I think are some of the most important policy areas politicians can seek to understand and get right.
I can see from the day’s agenda that the themes you have been discussing have been wide ranging, and the speakers you have been listening to, and will be listening to after me, are all distinguished and knowledgeable on the individual subjects they have been addressing.
I am particularly sorry I cannot stay around after this session to listen to Alison Garnham and Naomi Eisenstadt – the latter’s recent book I couldn’t put down – as well as the speaker from Ofsted discussing the regulation of early years provision.
I’m sure any childminders among you will be keen to hear any insights into the inner workings of Liz Truss’ mind, if indeed they are forthcoming, and whether the new Minister thinks you’ll be able to deliver the kind of quality support for young children that we have come to expect from all childcare professionals if you’ve got 5 toddlers to contend with at any one time.
I could speak at length on the children’s workforce, and the importance of tackling child poverty and health issues like obesity and malnutrition, but I’ve been asked to focus my contribution on improving services for children and young people particularly around early intervention.
I think it’s important when we talk about what should happen, and what various agencies need to do, we need to start by asking: 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 back, the DfE looking to sack half their workforce, and a million and one other programmes across government desperately in need of cash?
As much as it can be very frustrating at times, 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 me and 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, as is likely to be the case for some time to come.
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, healthy, well-nurtured 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 fundamental 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.
Any of you who work for a local authority may have been on the receiving end of a freedom of information request from my office over the summer, the results from which I’m still pulling together at the moment, but the initial indications show a drop-off of nearly half of all spending on workforce development because of the changes to – and specifically the reductions in – funding.
As another aside for any childminders in the room, I had to laugh at last week’s announcement by Maria Miller of £2m to provide grants up to the value of £500 for new providers setting up to help with registration fees and health and safety training – exactly the kind of support many local authorities already provided but have had to cut back on.
And this may be a help to childminders, but against the set-up costs for a nursery it’s a drop in the ocean.
And you can’t really blame local authorities for targeting those kinds of spending programmes for cutbacks.
Despite what I said earlier about Children’s Centres, in many areas they are being preserved following protests from parents, and the cuts that we have seen have certainly not been as great as feared given the funding reductions from central government.
But when more than a billion has been removed from the early intervention grant over the three financial years we have had since May 2010, cuts have to be made somewhere, and even though there are duties to develop the children’s workforce, and even though a well-qualified workforce is so important to a child’s development, workforce development is an area of spending which largely goes on under the radar of voters.
Of course, that’s just the start of it though, as we learned recently that the extension of free childcare for disadvantaged two year olds, which we had always been promised was new money, is actually going to come out of the existing early intervention grant pot, which is going to be wrapped up in the general revenue support grant.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Government are also planning to hold back £300m over the next two years for central purposes – probably payment by results or the Troubled Families Programme – which itself was supposed to be extra to what councils were already doing.
The upshot of that is the notional early intervention grant in 14/15 will be more than 40% lower than it was in 10/11 before the election.
As Opposition politicians, both myself and Bev can campaign against those cuts all we like, and we have done and will continue to do so.
Given the latest rounds of cuts, even Conservative councillors are coming out of the woodwork to call the Government’s approach short-sighted.
But for now at least, those cuts are here to stay.
We are therefore looking to our leaders in local government to ensure that they are doing the best we possibly can for all children, and making the right choices where we have the ability to make them.
That’s where the kind of targeted interventions which organisations like the WAVE Trust and OxPip advocate come in – high-impact programmes which can genuinely turn lives around.
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.
I think the Government needs to learn from the kind of data-sharing and co-location of services that some areas are already doing well, and make sure that that practice is spread across the country as a matter of urgency.
I visited a Sure Start centre in Manchester at the beginning of the year to meet the professionals who are redesigning early intervention services across the city, and discuss 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, and then destroy the paper copy!
That’s a ridiculous process, but it means they get the information which allows them to go out and encourage parents to come and access the services available.
Many of the other Children’s Centres and other services I’ve visited across the country – the majority in fact – haven’t been so successful, so they have no idea which doors to knock on.
That has got to change, and I hope that the forthcoming Children and Families Bill may provide me and other colleagues – including some on the Conservative benches who are very passionate about the foundation years - with an opportunity to make the case in Parliament for a statutory duty to ensure that frontline children’s services get that information.
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 service you are pointing them towards doesn’t provide anything they want.
Unfortunately, that’s the reality in many centres at the moment, and will increasingly spread to other centres as the next round of cuts begin to bite.
4Children’s recent children’s centre survey found that 20% of centres are charging for services that were formerly free, 55% no longer provide any onsite childcare.
If parents don’t go to children’s centres because they can’t afford the services they want or they’re simply not available, that means that their children won’t interact with the early years staff who might be able to spot problems like disorganised attachment, and won’t be able to refer the family to targeted intervention services which could help them.
That’s why I like Frank Field’s idea of greater co-location of local authority, welfare, housing and NHS services, and registering births, 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.
To be honest I think we could do even better than that, and say there should be a reason for expectant parents to go to their local centre to access prenatal services, both so that they can see what is on offer there, and so that staff can suggest any sources of help or support they may need before or after birth, such as financial or mental health support.
Coming back to why we need to do this, there are two clear reasons why the Government should focus on prevention and early intervention:
…because they have a moral duty to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable children…
…and 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 referring to the quality of relationships and experiences, but we should never forget the role that poverty can play in this – 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.
Just as one example, 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.
I asked Graham Allen after he published his report which was the number one intervention programme he would pick, and he said Family Nurse Partnerships.
On the strength of that I went to shadow a family nurse for a day to get an idea of the support they provide to young mums.
Even though it was very much ‘by the book’ and based on set guidelines, the support that those professionals provide was more like the kind of friendly advice that many of us got from our own mothers or other relatives when we had children, but which these parents obviously weren’t getting for whatever reason.
It was easy to see how priceless that kind of intervention is and how it will end up paying back the investment it needs many times over.
But intervening early doesn’t even need to cost as much, or even be as obvious as programmes like Family Nurse Partnerships.
The same kinds of parents who we target with FNPs could also be helped by simple things, such as a recognition of parenting as an essential skill in our education system.
I think, and I know that this is an idea that Frank Field is keen on too, as well as lots of experts in the sector, that child development and practices which promote positive attachments between parents and their child should be taught throughout the learning journey, and throughout the curriculum.
By lacing the concepts and science which make for good parenting throughout a pupil’s school life – particularly emphasising the scientific evidence on the importance of the first 24 months of a child’s life, the devastating impact that neglect can have during that period, and the equally devastating impact that smoking, drugs and drinking can have during pregnancy – we can give all pupils genuinely useful knowledge that will help them give their child the best start in life when that time comes, whatever their economic situation at the time.
The debate about whether prevention programmes work is over - 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 could do too.
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,
Alternatively, we could look to the Early Intervention Foundation, which I am pleased to say is looking slightly nearer now as the consortium led by Graham has recently been announced as the preferred bidder to run it, to provide an ongoing assessment of the programmes that are out there, as well as being an incubator for innovative but as yet unproven ideas.
Wherever it comes from, we need an authoritative body with the expertise and ability to give local authorities the confidence they need to make the switch from concentrating on solving problems when they occur and become a crisis, to investing in trying to ensure that those problems don’t occur in the first place.
To draw my remarks to a close, I’ve outlined just a few ways in which I think that children and young people’s services could be improved to place a greater emphasis on early intervention and prevention at the heart of what they’re about.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I am, if nothing else, a determined advocate for these services, if for no other reason than because I have seen the impact that they are having now – even while everyone’s struggling for funding – and that gives me hope that the quite utopian vision of people like Graham Allen can be achieved given the right support for these services from policymakers.
When we’ve got a Secretary of State who thinks – and I’m not making this up, he’s said it in Parliament and outside the House - that early intervention means converting primary schools to academies against the will of parents and staff, and a new Minister who thinks the answer to the childcare crisis we face is to de-professionalise the workforce, being an advocate from the opposition benches can be a very frustrating life.
But I will continue to plough this furrow both in and outside Parliament, and I welcome opportunities like this to engage with people like you, who are involved in delivering these crucial services, to hear what you think the Government’s priorities should be in this area.