• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 15th April, 2010

Fires, swamps, mosquitoes – too late for metaphors?

Its likely fate is that it will be lost in the surf of General Election politics, but the UK Department for Children, Schools and Families succeeded in putting its version of the argument for early intervention into print just before the campaigning began.It stirred mixed feelings in Nottingham North MP Graham Allen, who with former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith has been championing the cross party preventionist cause.He told the House of Commons, where the position paper was debated just before the Easter holiday, that he wanted to see a commitment in the election manifestos of all three main parties to furthering early intervention, and to developing 12 early intervention cities – emulating what he and and his colleagues had tried to achieve in Nottingham. “We also need the creation of an early intervention policy assessment center,” he added.The DCFS paper Early Intervention: Securing good outcomes for all children and young people had provided the groundwork, he said. Trouble was it had not offered quite the definition of "early intervention” he had expected to read."To tackle problems that have already emerged," was the paradoxical DCFS definition of the central cause.“In some ways that definition is almost the antithesis of early intervention,” the MP told the Commons. “The real definition of early intervention, and the one arrived at by many practitioners who think about and practice it, is to develop social and emotional capabilities in every baby, child and young person, so that problems do not emerge. “It is not about problem-solving; it is about eliminating causes.”Then there was the question of the paper’s status. It had been launched with something of a whimper. “I’m not sure whether it is a White Paper, a Green Paper or just a document,” he said. He was none the less pleased to it. It was a guide and an inspiration, and he wished it had been available five years ago.UK Minister for Children, Young People and Families, Dawn Primarolo, told him that for the purposes of what amounted to a consultation document a not-so-early early intervention definition had been preferred.It was intended to prefigure the necessary cultural change. "It is not a Green Paper, it is not a White Paper and it is not a formal consultation,” she said. "It seeks to make more advice, support and good practice available, particularly to children's trusts, which have to bring together health bodies, local authorities, the police and the third sector – all the services on the ground – in their children's and young person's plan.”The DCSF paper resurrects the language of risk and protective factors, and of needs and their early assessment, which was much more in evidence in UK policy making during the 1990s.Graham Allen took exception to the renewed preoccupation with the symptomology of risk.“I guess this is just a personal thing, but some of the professional jargon we encounter rankles a little. I am thinking of debates about stigmatization, and the use of pseudo-medical phraseology such as ‘triage’ or the misuse of the word ‘resilience’, given that many children cannot bounce back if they are not given the right social and emotional tools and equipment to work with,” he argued. “One of my least favorite terms is ‘risk factors’. That tends to involve a list of the symptoms, rather than seeking to deal with the fundamental causes of many of those symptoms. Again, the fundamental cause is the social and emotional capability or incapability of many of the babies, children and young people whom we are discussing. “We must be careful: unless we have the vision that I have set out and unless we have it in mind at all times, we can lapse into the day-to-day maelstrom of micro problem-solving that so many of our public servants are sucked into. “They do remarkably well in that fire-fighting job, but there must be a point at which people step back and, as well as fighting the fires, have a proper program for smoke alarms. As well as swatting the mosquitoes, people must have a proper program for draining the swamp.”See also: UK prevention evaluation center still on the cards and linked stories.

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