Supporting Families Below Social Care Thresholds

Sara Spinks 3 April 2023 9 min read
Supporting Families Below Social Care Thresholds feature image

In this article, former headteacher Sara Rawnsley reflects on the systems in place designed to support children and families who fall below social care thresholds and asks, 'How effective are the systems for 'Early Help'?

In my previous article I examined the mechanisms of the Early Help system. In this follow up article, I want to explore how effective this system is and question if it really meets the complex needs of children and families who fall just below the threshold for social care intervention.

In March 2015, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector commissioned an Ofsted thematic inspection to gain a more accurate picture of how effectively local partnerships' early help services were improving children's circumstances, reducing risk and in taking further action when needed. The process was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the early help services for children and families provided by local authorities and their partner agencies.

This inspection concluded that the legal framework provided insufficient clarity and priority to the roles and responsibilities of individual agencies. Ofsted found 'significant variability' in the effectiveness of shared accountability arrangements and the coordination of local early help services. The report stated:

”Little has changed for many children… because there is no statutory duty to enforce the shared accountability needed to deliver an effective early help offer. In many areas, a disconnect remains between statutory service provision and an early help offer for children.“

The inspection gave clear recommendations for HM Government, Local authorities and partner agencies delivering early help to children and families and Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs).

Actions from this inspection were again scrutinised in Feb 2022 through a scoping study commissioned by Ofsted and carried out by Research in Practice. The key messages of this study concluded:

  • Section 17 of The Children Act 1989, whereby local areas have a general duty to develop early help for children in need, varies widely and is often underused. Whereas the Care Act 2014 puts preventative work with adults on a statutory footing, there is no comparable duty in relation to children and adolescents. There is also no 'comprehensive, all-age multi-agency prevention strategy, attached to sustainable funding…to ensure a truly coordinated family help offer' 'comprehensive, all-age multi-agency prevention strategy, attached to sustainable funding… to ensure a truly coordinated family help offer';
  • The impact of funding cuts and Early Help: Welfare reforms have resulted in a reduction in cash transfers in real terms and greater income insecurity for many families with children, exacerbating the conditions families face, leading to a shift away from family support and towards child protection; from proactive to reactive;
  • Thresholds and demand management: The evidence suggests that rising levels of need have not been met by targeted early help focused on risk identification and management of demand for higher-level protective services. The overwhelming majority of those who receive child protection or child in-care services would benefit from public health-oriented support that relates to their experience of poverty and structural inequality, both earlier and following involvement with statutory intervention;
  • Data insufficiency and lack of shared definition: Data on early help activities in local areas is partial and incomplete. Many local authorities struggle to report the precise details of their early help work. Local authorities and their partners should have a national proforma for data recording for early help and prevention. There is also a lack of shared definitions of what early help is, who it is for and who should deliver it. Despite the commitment of service leaders and practitioners to helping children early, there is a lack of clarity for multi-agency partners about what help and support they should be delivering, how universal it should be, and where any thresholds should be set or how they should operate. It is also challenging for local authorities to fund preventative work when acute needs and their costs are rising.
  • Needs for support and protection are entwined. While the broad concept of preventative early help - act early to improve lives - is not contentious, there is less consensus on how to deliver it. A key tension is between understanding early help as an extension downwards of safeguarding responses (a strategy based on managing demand for protective interventions) or as part of broader public health strategy that reduces the 'risk profile' for the population as a whole.

Despite there being some beneficial financial investment, analysis found that central government allocation for early intervention funding is falling year on year. The analysis also found that whilst local authorities are required by law to provide support to children in need and in care, there are fewer legal requirements dictating the forms of support that must be provided earlier. With reduced budgets and increased pressure, councils are allocating more funds to late interventions, even though reducing the spending on early intervention has a knock-on effect; as these services become less able to support children, demand for late intervention increases.

What interventions work?

The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) published a review of interventions for a local family help offer in May 2022. This report provides the details of 59 policies, practices and scalable interventions with evidence of improving child and family outcomes within five categories of vulnerability:

  1. problematic child behaviour
  2. family conflict
  3. parental mental health
  4. domestic abuse
  5. parental substance misuse

The review made the case that a comprehensive public health approach targeting the well-being of all children is the best way to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and to prevent child abuse and neglect. Such an approach would offer strong universal support to all children while retaining a focus on those who are at the greatest risk. This means making support available for a wide range of family needs, including advice offered to all parents on managing normal levels of stress, as well as more intensive support with evidence of keeping serious problems from becoming worse.

Six key messages stand out from this review:

  1. There is a range of interventions with good evidence that could be included in local family help offers. The review highlighted 59 examples of interventions and activities with causal evidence of improving children’s well-being within five categories of child maltreatment risk.
  2. Increasing the availability of evidence-based interventions can accelerate improvements in practice.
  3. There are interventions that are currently not available in the UK that could add value to the current system.
  4. Increasing the availability of evidence-based interventions is likely to require support for implementation at a national level.
  5. parental substance misuse
  6. There are still some things that are unknown. This review has highlighted some of the limitations of the current evidence base, and areas where evidence remains insufficient for guiding practice.
  7. Evidence-based interventions will never be enough to reverse the impact of poverty.

The review concludes that whilst they have identified research that helps vulnerable children and families, much more needs to be understood about how individual initiatives to reduce financial pressure could reduce the prevalence of specific forms of child maltreatment and improve the life chances of vulnerable children more generally. The EIF highlight this lack of knowledge as a particular gap in the current evidence base and recommends closing it as a necessary next step towards improving the well-being of the most vulnerable children.

How do schools engage in achieving better outcomes for children?

'Schools have a 'particularly important' role in relation to early help and are 'in a position to identify concerns early, provide help for children, and prevent concerns from escalating' and all staff should be prepared to identify children who may benefit from early help.'

The relationships that children benefit from in educational settings mean that practitioners are best placed to be identifying when a child's circumstances change. This is due to the time children spend in school, the applied professional knowledge of practitioners on child development and safeguarding as well as the core element of the relationships held between adults and children in educational settings. It is those relationships that will always provide the building blocks for prevention, identification and intervention. However, there are some things to consider when thinking about how that support is offered and implemented for it to be effective.

Working with families who may be 'hard to reach'

Early Help is not a statutory process that families must accept and participate in. It is consent driven with families able to end the support at any point, as is their human right to private family life. (It is important to highlight that should a child be defined as a Child In Need (section 17 Children Act 1989) or if there is reasonable cause to suspect a child is at risk of or experiencing significant harm (section 47 Children Act 1989) then a referral to Children's Social Care must be made immediately.)

Often, professionals report frustrations around families who do not appear to be willing to accept the support being offered even when there are early safeguarding concerns. Terms like 'hard to reach' and 'did not engage' are commonplace amongst practitioners and these indicate that parents/carers have not accepted the support on offer from an organisation, often against the professional advice and at odds with the professional opinion of identified need.

So how do we engage in achieving better outcomes for children?

To answer this question, we need to first go back a few steps in our approach and acknowledge that there may be many barriers to families accessing support, some of which might not be immediately apparent to professionals trying to help. Fundamentally, when we approach a parent about their child with something that we have as a concern, no matter how early this is identified, it is commonplace for this to be experienced as potentially threatening by the parent. Factors influencing engagement can include negative experiences that parents have had and how these impact on current engagement. This was acknowledged as a learning point in the Annual Review by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2021)

”It is important to understand the underlying issues giving rise to reluctant or sporadic engagement, particularly where professionals are 'working with consent'. An understanding of adults' own experiences is essential to addressing concerns about their lack of engagement.“

In the same report, it is recognised that other common barriers exist around parents feeling overwhelmed when working with many professionals and being unclear of people's roles and the part they could play in supporting their family's journey.

Through having good intentions and the benefit of professional distance from the issues identified, an idea of the 'right' support might develop that professionals think will make a difference. It is common for professionals to feel frustrated when this is not accepted by a child and/or family. However, to overcome these barriers, there must be a return to the 'doing with and not done to' approach and consider how we might need to create a culture where we develop open and trusting relationships with families.

'Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018' currently states that effective Early Help:

”Should be undertaken with the agreement of the child and their parents or carers, involving the child and family as well as all the practitioners who are working with them. It should take account of the child's wishes and feelings wherever possible, their age, family circumstances and the wider community context in which they are living.“

The evidence, guidance and our own human experience tell us that help is effective when delivered with a human-informed approach. When professionals move beyond their professional identity into standing side-by-side with families experiencing struggle and establish how they want to be supported, by whom and when. However, this is sometimes difficult to implement when faced with clear prescriptive processes. When thinking about families who 'are not engaging' it is important to consider our language and attitudes. Some things to consider might be:

  • What is the child's experience? How do we know this?
  • What are the views of the child/family on support?
  • How have we shown respect for differences in values, culture and beliefs?
  • How have we connected with the family?
  • What are the strengths in the family?
  • What might be impacting a family's ability to engage?
  • How might any barriers be overcome?
  • Who else could help?

As with all aspects of safeguarding, it is always important to be supported through reflective practice with professional supervision. This is an integral part of safe practice and is embedded firmly in most agencies responsible for safeguarding. Although currently only a statutory requirement for EYFS settings, supervision is something that more and more settings are building into their safeguarding cultures. This is indicative of the priority settings are placing on the safety of their children, as well as the wellbeing of staff, both of which have a close relationship.

Early identification of those in need of help

The Early Help process should always be aimed at improving the outcomes for children by identifying as early as possible when there might be a challenge. If this can be implemented effectively then the risk of statutory intervention due to significant harm is likely to be reduced.

Early Help is often part of a tiered response to support, each local area will have a range of services providing different levels of intervention. Many educational settings will have their own offer of Early Help, perhaps through a pastoral structure or Learning Mentor. Where there are complex needs and support required from more than one agency it is important to use an Early Help Assessment. It's important that DSLs are familiar with the local approach to assessing Early Help needs. The Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) has the responsibility of setting out the arrangements for all levels of support and intervention within that local area. This information will be available on your Local LSCB website and there is often training to help professionals complete these documents.

Effective Early Help will be achieved when families feel they are being worked with and not having things done to or for them. Likewise, an absence of support is also unhelpful and will often lead to escalating issues for children and difficult relationships between families and practitioners.

Successful Early Help is delivered through high support and high challenge, ensuring families remain independent and grow in confidence and resilience, creating sustainable change, rather than a culture of dependence developing upon professional services or an absence of support completely.

Top tips for effective Early Help:

Know your stuff
DSLs or key staff should ensure they are familiar with the local processes for Early Help and how to complete an Early Help Assessment. Information can be found on the local LSCB website.
Know who can offer support
Build a directory of Early Help agencies that operate in the local area. Establish professional relationships with key contacts at these agencies.
Ensure the family is in the driving seat
All Early Help requires explicit consent. Families who feel they are listened to in a non-judgmental environment are more likely to be able to identify the help they need and access it.
Balance out the concerns with identifying strengths
This can be really powerful in improving children's outcomes. Identify the strengths. Highlight what's going well for the family and how this can be built on.
Agree on all meetings being around the family timetable
An agenda should be provided and minutes taken and supplied to the family to ensure they agree they are a true representation. These should then be shared with the other agencies parents have requested and have consented to be involved in their support.
Comfort and confidentiality
Any appointments should be in a welcoming environment where other staff/members of the public/children are not able to hear the content of the conversations. Refreshments often help to make people feel at ease.
Being open with the school community about the support available
Use your website and Safeguarding Policy to list details about agencies providing Early Help. This can be a useful tool in awareness raising and embedding your supportive practices. A summary leaflet/visitor information board for Early Help might be useful.
Staff training
All staff should be aware of Early Help through reading Part One: Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021. However, add a training session on Early Help to one of your safeguarding briefings throughout the year to make sure they know what to look for and how the school can help. Safeguarding is everyone's responsibility.
Lead professional
As was identified as a potential barrier in the Annual Report by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, families can feel overwhelmed working with a range of professionals. Having one lead contact identified by the family can be key in building trust and engagement in support.
Regularly review all Early Help support
Careful consideration should be given to the outcomes of the children through a child-centred reflective process. Should concerns escalate - it is vital that you follow your setting's Safeguarding Policy.

There can be no doubt schools are at the coal face of need daily. Whilst research shows that there are effective interventions which show good potential for supporting the vulnerable families in their communities and there are now mechanisms through the Early Help system for multi-agency working, there needs to be major investment in order for the tide to turn from a reactive to a proactive approach. This is much needed if we are to truly meet our duty of care and support children and families from crossing the threshold for social care involvement.

Working Together to Safeguard Children is being reviewed in 2023 with an examination of all the multi-agency partnerships. This is a welcomed and long overdue review which recognises the difficulties in current practice with multiagency working. It is hoped that this review will give further clarity for all agencies of their roles and responsibilities when working with families in need, as well as a commitment of further investment to make effective change.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher