David Simmonds is a Conservative councillor in Hillingdon and trustee at the Early Intervention Foundation.
As we learn more about the long-term benefits of early intervention, the case for long-term investment becomes clearer.
The basic principle of early intervention is as straightforward as it is familiar: it’s better to step in early, when a problem first starts to appear, than to wait and deal with the consequences later.
When it comes to children’s development, from their earliest years through to their transition into adulthood, the long-term consequences of failing to act early can include an increased risk of mental health problems, poorer academic achievement, reduced employment chances, increased antisocial behaviour, risk of offending, and reduced adult relationship quality – which, alongside other factors, can simply serve to perpetuate the cycle from one generation to the next.
In short, too many children are facing challenges or disadvantages that can threaten their future life chances, health, and happiness.
While early intervention cannot solve every problem, it can substantially improve children’s lives, if it is delivered to a high standard to the children or families who need it most. It is vital now, today, to ask whether this is being done, or whether some fundamental changes are required so that effective, early support can be provided to all those who stand to benefit.
First, however, we need to come to terms with the wider benefits that effective forms of early intervention can achieve. Leaving problems unresolved in childhood doesn’t only impact on the lives of individuals and families – it also impacts on society and our economy, by undermining the wellbeing of communities and reducing people’s opportunities to live positive, productive, successful lives.
Intervening early is crucial. There are good grounds to believe that investing early rather than later will lead to cumulative benefits – that the skills children acquire when they are young will lead to greater additional gains as they get older. And these benefits are widely shared, accruing to the whole of society and the wider economy, not just to public services and government bodies.
This ‘pay-off’ may be particularly large where early intervention leads to labour market gains. For example, the Department for Education has estimated that individuals who achieve five or more good GCSEs have additional productivity gains (counting benefits to the individual, Exchequer, and future employers) of around £100,000 over their lifetime, compared with those with qualifications below this level.
The flipside to this potential benefit is the potential extra costs associated with dealing with the long-term impacts of problems rooted early in life. The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) has estimated that the cost of ‘late intervention’ – covering expensive, acute services such as mental health support, youth justice, and tackling school absenteeism or domestic violence – is nearly £17 billion a year across England and Wales. Though clearly these costs cannot be reduced to zero, this does outline the quantum of resources that are wasted in tackling issues that could have been dealt with sooner, and where the long-term outcomes for society could have been improved.
In short, we know that the costs of intervening early are likely to pay off to society in the long run. The sums can be difficult to do with great accuracy, given the complexity and assumptions involved, but there is a wide body of research which suggests that the value of these benefits to society is often far higher than the costs of intervening.
Now, those of us who advocate for early intervention – among which I count myself, as a trustee of the EIF and long-time champion of local early help services – are sometimes tempted to raise expectations just one peg too high, to alight on early intervention as a means of saving money in local services this year or next.
Early intervention can achieve such ‘cashable’ savings, but that’s when commissioners are able to turn around and decommission services or settings that are no longer required. If early intervention succeeds in reducing demand on a local service, but this additional capacity is immediately soaked up in dealing with other demands – perhaps issues or cases that have simply been on the waiting list – then what looks like a gain may not appear on the bottom line.
Of course, this is still a gain, if front-line services can address a wider range of problems or focus more time on the most urgent cases, but that’s not the same as saving money. As my colleagues at the EIF say, early intervention is not a financial coping strategy for local or central government, and arguments that rest on the potential for short-term cashable savings miss the bigger picture – and risk undermining the good case altogether.
Is enough being done to capitalise on the potential of early intervention? We know that there are some longstanding, oft-cited barriers within the system – from familiar challenges around funding and political short-termism, to less familiar issues, like just how much of what local services provide remains untested, and thus has not been shown to be working, with empirical evidence.
In their new report, Realising the Potential of Early Intervention, the EIF has made a bold case for change, including some fundamental changes to happen at the national and local levels. As they argue, there are resources in the system, but more needs to be done to understand what impact it is having, and what scope there is to redirect funding to things which are more likely to be effective.
In early intervention. as in all areas, public money must be spent in ways that are more likely to improve people’s lives and which build our understanding of ‘what works’ to better inform future decisions.