• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 20th May, 2010

Will early intervention be a UK Big Society winner?

This post-election period in the UK opens a window of opportunity to anyone bent on progressing well-costed, evidence-based policy ideas about prevention and early intervention in children's services.Paradoxically, the economic crisis provides an auspicious context, because it has coincided with a windfall of evidence as to the economic advantages of stopping a problem happening rather than responding only when it has become entrenched. Early intervention is excellent value for money. We know it is cheaper and far more effective than late intervention.And times and attitudes have changed, too. A few years ago, some UK Conservatives tried to brand Family Nurse Partnership, the UK translation of the model US Nurse Family Partnership as a roundabout way of imposing "ASBOs [Anti-Social Behaviour Orders] on embryos". Some Labour MPs dismissed the then leader of the opposition David Cameron's efforts to attend to the needs of the disenfranchised as "hugging a hoodie". Since then, policy options around early intervention have been discussed with less prejudice and increasing maturity by all parties, including the power-sharing Lib Dems.Even more important in a time of political pact making, the civil service is warming to the idea of early intervention. The relatively new Early Intervention Unit within the Department of Children, Schools and Families published a concepts document early in 2010. [See: UK prevention evaluation center still on the cardsAnd there is a solid cross-party alliance based on a lasting collaboration between Labour MP Graham Allen and new Work and Pensions Secretary, the former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan SmithOutlining what they consider to be key practical proposals in the latest edition of the UK Journal of Children's Services they praise bright initiatives in Birmingham, the Isle of Man, Nottingham, Tower Hamlets, Northern Ireland and London. But they worry about the isolation of the institutions responsible for providing and collecting the evidence and for supporting agencies in the difficult task of implementation, arguing that an early intervention network comprising academics, think tanks and practitioners is much needed.They point out that local politicians and institutions respond intuitively to ideas that promise better value for money and improved human development, but that they lack dispassionate advice on taking these ideas forward."Too many of us re-invent the wheel," they argue, "thinking up local schemes and pet projects that often lack the necessary evidence base or experience required for proper implementation."A reasonable goal in the next decade might be to take prevention and early intervention to scale in ten or so cities or large local authorities across the country. To achieve this goal we need an independent, central resource that can advise on the best policies, programs, costs and benefits, and effective implementation, training and support."Among US models on which they say a UK initiative might be based, they cite the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence which, under the direction of Delbert Elliott, has checked several thousand violence, drug, alcohol and tobacco use, bullying, school drop-out and teenage pregnancy policies. Similar work by Steve Aos at the independent Washington State Institute of Public Policy, which establishes which policies are the most effective and at the same time create a saving for the public purse, has enabled Washington state to make great strides toward an integrated and cost-efficient early intervention policy.Among new mechanisms for funding early intervention that do not depend on Government money, Allen and Duncan Smith suggest an early intervention bond or some similar financial instrument that will allow private and public investors to invest in proven programs."Funds could be raised on the market and dividends paid as children's health and development improves (and calls on expensive treatments subside)."They end on a pragmatic but optimistic note. "As politicians we must avoid the temptation of claiming to have found the magic bullet, whether it is Family Intervention Projects or Family Nurse Partnerships, in isolation from all the vital supporting components. In Nottingham's case, several proven programs working alongside excellent mainstream services compound and complement each other. "As in other aspects of politics the stakes with respect to early intervention are very high. It matters for the millions of individuals and future generations who will benefit, and it moves us closer to giving early intervention the same depth and permanence as the National Health Service."Allen, G and Smith, I D (2010) "The cross party challenge: Early intervention for children and families", Journal of Children's Services, 5 (1), 4-8.

Back to Archives