Family Help requires a new approach and bold investments

There is a clear consensus that system change is not only needed but also possible. The question is how do you make it happen? NCB's Chair Alison O’Sullivan shares her thoughts on the future of Family Help and how the sector can create a successful working model. 

The most powerful message from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care is the need to create better support for families.

Early help for families clearly works and the whole sector want to see more but, spending has reduced and services are hard to access, so bold investments and a new approach are needed. This is why there has been so much enthusiasm for the powerful message from the care review calling for better early support.

NCB’s Rapid Review of Evidence in June 2021 highlighted the difference that early help can make, reinforcing the case that investment is necessary to reduce future need. It shone a light on the challenges faced, including: difficulties defining early help, variability in types of help, accessibility and lack of evaluation which aids justification for investment. 

The Care Review demonstrated that the majority of families involved with social care are parenting in conditions of adversity, rather than being likely to cause significant harm to their children and showed that with resources and a clear vision, early help makes a real difference.

There is much to welcome from the review’s recommendations: a clear focus on co-production with children and families and the recognition of the need for a multi-agency approach with different professional expertise. It highlights the need for better data and evaluation, alongside long-term investment with significant ‘seed’ money.

There is a clear consensus that system change is not only needed but also possible. The question is how do you make it happen?

The Review proposes an approach for Family Help and whilst it acknowledges that local interpretation will be needed, it leans towards proposing a specific model. Herein lies the potential pitfall. Bringing about change from a complex inheritance of arrangements is challenging. A deep understanding of the complexity is needed to build new ways of working. 

To understand complexity, you need to walk towards it and learn new ways of working. You need to engage those you’re trying to help and those who will bring about change, to empower them to shape solutions. You also need to maintain clear focus and remain closely connected, as approaches continue to change and grow.

The support program for directors of children’s services has long used the concept of ‘wicked issues’ to understand the highly complex circumstances in which children services are delivered. Dealing with complex and intractable problems in an environment where the analysis of issues and potential solutions are highly contested requires the right kind of leadership. ‘Wicked’ issues require sophisticated solutions with approaches that are fluid and adaptive to change.

What are the ‘wicked’ issues in family support? Understanding these will help to approach, practice and change. There are a number of factors that need to be addressed:

  • What is the intended reach?
  • Are you going to provide universal help or targeted help?
  • How do you overcome issues of stigma?
  • How do you harness multi professional skills without over-complicating delivery?
  • Will there be eligibility criteria?
  • Will people need to be referred to get help or will access be open?
  • How will people know they can get help?
  • How will power dynamics be addressed?
  • Can new solutions be found by ‘getting alongside’ families?
  • Can professionals give up their power without undermining accountability?
  • Do you build safeguarding knowledge into every area of help, or do you have ‘blue light‘ professionals who parachute in when risks are high?
  • How can systems and the professionals working in the systems hold risk? How can you know when and where risk will arise?

These are not simple challenges capable of simple resolution.

The truth is that family help needs to be both universal and targeted, available to all and rationed, professionally directed and co-produced with families.  Safeguarding is everybody’s business  and also requires expert skills at times.

So, the way forward cannot rely on the central design of a specific approach, which is then applied to local systems.  We need to be wary of the political imperative to find short-term simple solutions in order to secure support and investment.

The Care Review demonstrates there is no quick fix and rightly recommend a significant shift in ways of working and long-term investment. This should be supported by a robust definition of early help, but one which allows for flexible and changing definitions. Co-production must be embedded in the development and design of local approaches built upon the particular circumstances and needs. And local system solutions must offer a continuum of help.

Of course, there must be accountability but not for the implementation of a pre-designed model or narrow targets. Broad outcomes should be agreed with methods of accountability which learn from best practice, but also give equal weight to the opinions of local people and professionals. Enhanced trust in local communities and professionals must be the bedrock of a new radical approach to family help.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, with the National Children’s Bureau as Secretariat, are hold a Parliamentary event on children’s social care reform. This in-person event will be held in Parliament on Tuesday 8 November between 3pm and 5pm. Find out more about the event here.

About NCB's Chair of Trustee's Alison O'Sullivan

Alison O'Sullivan, Chair of NCB's Trustees

Alison qualified a social worker in 1978 working for many years in inner city Bradford. She went on work in senior local authority and health roles until retirement in 2016. She dedicated her career to improving the lives of children in the UK. Alison was President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in 2015/16 and has been engaged in national policy and influencing roles for the last 15 years.