The Multi-agency Response To Children And Families Who Need Help
In this article, Sara Spinks examines the newly published Ofsted research findings on the multi-agency Early Help response.
Ofsted published a research and analysis report on the multi-agency response to children and families who need help on 7 Nov 2023. This was of particular interest to me as my school had invested significant time and resources to implementing a robust early help offer to our families and we were seeing positive green shoots of improvement for the children and families in school, working with our early help local partners. We had the mantra that stems from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; no child can perform well academically if the foundations of their physiological, safety and emotional lives are not being effectively met.
This report is based on five joint targeted area inspections (JTAIs) focusing on the multi-agency response to children and families needing help. The inspections, conducted between December 2022 and March 2023, assessed the practices of individual agencies and the effectiveness of multi-agency collaborations, particularly in targeted early help. Interestingly, the report acknowledges the variability in outcomes among the inspected areas, with a mix of good and less effective practices.
The report's context follows the DfE consultation outcome, ‘Stable homes, built on love’, the Government's response to the independent care review, which identified family help services as one of 6 pillars to transform children's social care in England. In this pillar, the Government wants:
"…every area in England [to] provide families with supportive and welcoming Family Help services, delivered by a skilled multi-disciplinary workforce. Family Help services will provide effective and intensive support to families facing significant challenges that make it harder to provide their children with a loving, stable and safe family life."
The report discusses the variation in early help services and attributes it to several factors. Here are the key findings from the report:
- Resource Pressures:
- Resource pressures across universal and targeted services make it challenging to prioritise early help, exacerbated by factors like the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and a cost-of-living crisis. Different areas have diverse approaches to prioritising early help, and partnership designs vary across different areas. Some areas strongly emphasise early help through strategies like joint needs analysis and collaboration with the voluntary sector. Limited resources, however, prevent universal prioritisation of early help across all areas. Capacity issues across agencies are significant challenges, with limited funding and staff shortages contributing to these capacity challenges. This is no surprise as services are funded from local authority purses, and the pressure on services mounts each year with the dramatic reduction in funding from central Government.
- Understanding and Use of Local Resources:
- Local resources are not consistently well understood or used across services and communities, leading to some families not receiving timely assistance. The report highlighted the significant challenge of maintaining strategic oversight of diverse early help services across local areas. Despite the availability of various services provided by different partners, communities and local partners often lack awareness of them. This lack of awareness results in delayed signposting of children and families to services, leading to missed opportunities for assistance. Making information about services easily accessible is crucial to save resources and provide help more efficiently. Capacity issues across the workforce also pose additional challenges, with long waits for specialised staff and backlogs in case checking.
- Timely Escalation to Statutory Social Care:
- In some cases, families should have been moved from early help to statutory social care sooner than they were. Ofsted identified various issues, including a lack of follow-up with unengaged families, unclear pathways, delays in determining the need for statutory intervention, and instances where some children lack lead professionals with the necessary skills. The report emphasises the essential but sometimes lacking aspects of flexibility in engagement and maintaining positive relationships during transitions from early help to statutory social work.
- Workforce Capacity and Skills:
- A responsive and skilled workforce with adequate capacity is crucial for high-quality, child-centred practice. The early help system is highlighted as requiring a consistent expectation regarding practitioners' skills, training, and experience, emphasising the need for effective monitoring and reflective supervision. Ofsted stresses the importance of rigorously managing and monitoring the alignment of children's needs with practitioners' skills. While exemplary work by early help practitioners is acknowledged, including sensitive child-centred interventions and innovative projects, the report highlights the critical dependence of workforce effectiveness on adequate staff capacity. This underscores the importance of having staff equipped with the right skills and sufficient time for development to maintain the quality of early help services.
- Family-Centred Approach:
- Some early help approaches are too adult-focused, emphasising the need for areas to be both family-focused and child-centred. The report highlights the paramount importance of adopting a family-focused yet child-centred approach in early help initiatives. While there is a commitment to involving children, parents, and carers in early help, the report identifies a tendency in some systems to overly focus on parents' needs, potentially overlooking children's needs. To address this, the report emphasises the significance of co-producing plans with both children and parents, leveraging families' strengths, and prioritising the welfare of the child, aligning with the principles of the Children Act 1989.
- Safeguarding Partnerships:
- Local safeguarding partnerships need greater engagement and strategic consensus with partner agencies, especially schools. The report delves into the disparities in the engagement of strategic partners in delivering early help across diverse areas. It notes that, even in regions with a defined approach, some partners were not equally involved at a strategic level, leading to instances of insufficient collaborative multi-agency response at the front door, thereby impacting decision-making for assisting children and families. Ofsted further highlighted a weak connection between schools or education providers and partner agencies, emphasising that schools, though critical as a source of referrals to children's social care, often operate in isolation. Despite schools' close engagement with children and families, enabling them to identify early signs of need, challenges arise due to inconsistent communication and a lack of strategic connections with children's social care, health services, or the police.
- Information Sharing and Communication:
- Information-sharing and communication between partners varied across areas and needed improvement. The report highlights the critical role of robust data systems, clear processes, and a skilled workforce in facilitating effective information-sharing for quicker assistance to children. However, it highlights variations in the effectiveness of information-sharing across local areas, citing challenges like professionals lacking acquaintance with each other, the absence of a lead professional leading to siloed work, and difficulties in accessing information across different systems, as well as inconsistent capture of valuable knowledge about children's backgrounds, including ethnicity and language.
- Evaluation and Oversight:
- Evaluation and oversight of early help partnership arrangements and services are critical. The report highlights the significance of well-functioning Multi-Agency Safeguarding Arrangements (MASA) with a broad membership encompassing statutory partners, education, and other relevant services. Successful partnerships are characterised by regular meetings, a shared vision, processes for sharing local information, and effective oversight of early help initiatives. A notable observation is that not all areas prioritise oversight of early help within their safeguarding arrangements, and there is a general lack of focus on evidence-led interventions in strategic planning for early help across various regions.
- Community-Centric Services:
- Early help services work well when partners understand their communities, tailoring services to local needs for quick and accessible support. The report highlights the inconsistency in engaging communities across local partnerships. While some partnerships effectively understand and address local needs by incorporating cultural awareness and building strong alliances with the community, others fall short. Collaborations that successfully involve the community in co-producing services with children and families are highlighted, often facilitated through community organisations or schools. The provision of easily accessible services, such as walk-in services, is noted as instrumental in overcoming barriers and reducing the stigma associated with early help services. Ofsted emphasises the importance of maintaining a balance between accommodating cultural needs and ensuring effective interventions and stresses the significance of recording information about children's individual needs related to culture, ethnicity, or religion, as gaps in this recording can hinder a comprehensive consideration of children's needs in decision-making processes.
Conclusion: implications for policy and practice
Ofsted showed that there is some good practice in both big-picture planning and everyday actions, but it is inconsistent across areas. So, government reforms in children's social care must acknowledge these local differences, encompassing variations in understanding early help's role, strategic approaches, and capacities across geographical areas and partners, emphasising a child-centric family approach. These disparities provide crucial context for implementing the objectives outlined in 'Stable Homes, built on Love.' Achieving the goal of providing timely assistance to all children and families, regardless of location, requires further action.
The picture of inconsistency is across many areas, such as the skills and knowledge of professionals to assess, aid, and safeguard effectively and multi-agency collaboration, especially with schools, needs improvement.
But here's the kicker – not having enough resources and funding is holding things back. We've got to put early help front and centre because it really can have a positive impact on children and families. So, prioritising and investing in early help at all levels and agencies is essential to enhance existing capabilities. This can't happen if there is inconsistent funding which relies on local authority annual budget setting. If the Government is serious about 'Stable homes, built on love', they need to put their money where their mouth is and fund it properly.
SSS Author & Former Headteacher