“Although this blog is being published under my name, it is the work of an anonymous contributor who is a Prospect member with frontline experience and expertise of many of the issues raised in the DfE consultation. This blog is their personal reaction and analysis of the consultation’s interim findings. The identity of the author is known to myself and to Prospect’s Education and Children’s Services Group executive committee.”
The Children in Need Team have published the interim findings of the DfE consultation "Improving the educational outcomes of Children In Need of help and protection".
The publication sets out some of the learning on what support Children in Need require to improve their educational outcomes. I have considered these findings from my own professional perspective and several themes have emerged.
Reading the interim findings turned into a nice excuse for catching up with some policy developments that I’d missed. I was particularly drawn to the references in the findings to:
- children facing delays in accessing support because ‘agencies disagree about their responsibilities’; and
- children and families not being clear about ‘the roles and responsibilities of the practitioners working with them’.
The benefits of professionals and agencies working as teams around children and families have been long established. The interim findings of this consultation are a timely reminder that, for too many children, the ‘team-around-the-child’ approach remains an aspiration.
The early years phase of education makes only a walk-on appearance in the document. The authors feel that excluding the pre-school years from their work on improving the educational outcomes of Children in Need does not diminish their importance. I would argue that it does. In a document that is, in part, about addressing weaknesses in services because of fragmentation and division, it is questionable to look only at schools. Early years does (inevitably?) find its way into the conclusion.
The conclusion recommends ‘testing effective support for the early language and literacy of Children in Need through the HLE (home learning environment) trials in the North of England’. This attention to early language is encouraging but it was Sure Start Children’s Centres that were seen as key to improving HLEs. At present, Children’s Centres occupy a policy-vacuum. Ofsted inspections were suspended in 2015 and there is no sign that the government’s promised consultation about the future of Children’s Centres will happen. In the meantime, Children’s Centres are steadily closing or becoming incorporated into other provision.
Transitions feature in the interim findings as a factor affecting Children in Need. But, while frequent transitions are generally seen as detrimental for Children in Need, DWP actively encourages ‘blended’ childcare so that children of working parents can access 30 hours free childcare each week. This potentially adds to the number of transitions children make between carers across a day or week.
If measurable change is intended then clear definitions and targets are necessary. The interim findings appear to struggle with defining Children in Need. The document starts by stating an intention to use the ‘broadest statutory definition’ - and then variously drifts into references to:
- vulnerable children;
- complex families; and
- other disadvantaged pupils.
If the widest definition is the intention then it’s arguable that every child is in need of help and protection (which is/was an underlying principle of Sure Start). Broad and interchangeable definitions mean starting and finishing points are not clear enough.
Too much of the outcomes data is localised, anecdotal and specific to small-scale interventions. It provides ‘feel-good’ headlines and keeps services and voluntary organisations busy in a hamster wheel of short-term projects and funding. It is disheartening to reflect how many hours are spent planning pilots, and completing bid applications, for the latest good idea. Then the jargon (ie the definition) changes and we set off again!
Multi-agency data sharing
Some visible progress has been made in sharing information to protect children from abuse and neglect. But there has been less progress in protecting those at risk of educational under-achievement. For example, the Integrated Review at age two was intended to dovetail the DoH Healthy Child Programme Review at age two with the EYFS (education) Progress Check at age two.
Some local authorities have provided effective leadership and put systems in place to bring the two reviews together in some way. Some can even claim to have established a genuinely Integrated Review for a proportion of children in their area. But, overall, the policy has so far failed to achieve its stated aim of drawing upon the content of both reviews to ‘generate information which can be used to plan services and contribute to the reduction of inequalities in children’s outcomes’ (DH and DfE joint Integrated Review Development Group 2012).
Training the workforce
Progress requires a well-trained workforce but private, voluntary and independent (PVI) early years settings remain trapped in the drive to provide ‘low cost high quality childcare’. This leaves providers with little funding for training. And highly-qualified early years practitioners are experiencing a steady reduction in their real-terms pay (Education Policy Institute ‘Early Years Workforce in England’ report 2019).
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on ‘Early Years evidence based intervention’ has recommended that: ‘The Government’s new national strategy for adversity-targeted early interventions … should identify and define the ‘early intervention workforce’, comprising the full range of professions that engage with young children or their families and that could either: help to identify those who would benefit from early intervention; or would play a role in delivering early intervention services. The Government should then review the pre-qualification training and continuing professional development offered to the different professions in the early intervention workforce and ensure that each covers the different elements outlined above, at a level appropriate to the profession in question’ (October 2018).
The question of how this will be achieved and paid for across the ‘early intervention workforce’ remains unanswered.
Interim findings states an intention to ‘change policy where the evidence shows that is what is needed’. However, policy, time-scales and accountability continue to be flexible and so the direction of travel towards effectively meeting the needs of Children in Need relies too heavily on rhetoric and good intentions.
The barriers to real change for Children in Need are deep-rooted and good ideas have a habit of being absorbed - without visible impact on the status quo…