As we re-enter a difficult period of rising COVID-19 infections, it’s a good time to look back at what lessons we can learn from the first wave of coronavirus for the delivery of services to vulnerable children and families.
Our research found that in the early stages of the pandemic, local authorities faced a number of challenges. School closures, social distancing and lockdown seriously affected the ability of services to support children and families at the very time that these families were facing even greater challenges.
The immediate concerns of service leaders focused on the difficulties of protecting vulnerable children when home visits were severely restricted, and many were not in school or early years provision.
Those we spoke to were also concerned about their ability to identify children who may have become vulnerable as a result of the pandemic, without home visits or other face-to-face contact.
But we also saw real innovation in how councils and their partners responded. We heard many stories of new partnerships and collaborations being developed, old silos being broken down, and longstanding barriers being overcome.
For instance, we saw schools working more closely with early help services, and many early intervention services mobilising rapidly to enable support and services to be delivered remotely or online, which appears to have benefited some children and families by making support more accessible and engaging.
To make the most of this innovation in the future, the key will be finding out which of these new approaches improve outcomes for children and which don’t. This must be about more than users’ satisfaction.
At the Early Intervention Foundation, we are now working with councils to test and evaluate these changes, so that the best of these innovations are identified and spread, and so that councils can make evidence-informed decisions about which of these changes to service delivery to keep.
Given the stakes for young lives, and the pressure on council budgets, it’s crucial that precious funds are focused on the most promising new approaches.
But as we hit a second wave of COVID-19, it’s clear that early help and wider family support services are facing a double hit, not only from more families needing support to deal with a wider range of problems, but also from the knock-on consequences of fewer children and families having received the support that would usually have been available at key moments in their lives.
Some children are facing increased mental health problems, levels of family conflict and domestic violence, and attainment gaps between the poorest children and their peers will be widening.
Without help, these consequences will leave a lasting mark on the lives of many children and young people. Statutory services cannot simply absorb this increased demand and won’t be the right answer for many families anyway.
That’s why it’s critical that the early help system for children and families is funded to meet this need. We need meaningful investment in children’s services – including in universal services provided through public health teams, and early help and targeted services – in addition to crucial investment in acute and statutory services.
We must ensure that there’s significant increased support for vulnerable children and families, so that this generation of children doesn’t have to live with the legacy of COVID-19 for the rest of their lives.