Overall, there were significant weakness in the quality and focus of supervision and management oversight of early help cases. In the large majority of cases, professionals verbally reported that they received some formal management oversight of individual cases. A small but concerning number reported that there were no formal arrangements.
Despite the positive verbal feedback from professionals, inspectors only saw written records of management oversight in just over half of the early help cases. In a third of these cases with a manager overseeing them, written records of management oversight were held separately from the child’s file. Of those that had a written account of management oversight, fewer than half considered the effectiveness of the child’s plan. Even fewer considered whether the plan was improving the child’s circumstances and experiences. Managers also missed opportunities to challenge poor professional practice.
None of the local areas had developed a multi-agency process for the standard and quality of management oversight that should be offered to professionals who contribute early help. Each professional had different arrangements depending on the agency that employed them.
The significant variability and quality of management oversight across agencies meant that the effectiveness with which concerns for children were being managed and reduced across agencies was limited. One LSCB conducted a systems review and found that early help cases were not consistently reviewed by a manager. Other LSCBs were often unaware of the level and consistency of management oversight offered to individual staff on early help cases. Most LSCBs relied on section 11 audit returns to confirm that appropriate supervision and management oversight arrangements were in place. None had given sufficient scrutiny to these returns to be assured that effective management oversight, specific to early help cases, was in place.
All professionals felt that they were able to access a range of formal and informal support both internal to their own organisation and externally. Very few described feelings of isolation in dealing with early help work. They regularly used their peers and professional networks to seek advice. For example, in one area, a practitioner described meeting with her peers on a weekly basis to discuss cases where workers felt that they may be ‘stuck’. The worker was assisted by the wide variety of skills and knowledge in the team.
Where early help coordinators existed they were highly valued. The large majority of professionals identified that they had good access to social workers within children’s social care or within multi-agency safeguarding hub arrangements and welcomed the opportunity to test out the application of thresholds in early help cases where the child’s situation did not seem to be improving.
Quality assurance and audit activity of early help work was not well established or developed. Workers in just over a quarter of the early help cases reported that the case had been subject to a quality assurance process or audit. Some audits only looked at process and compliance factors rather than the quality, impact and outcomes of the early intervention for the child and family. Other workers reported that, although they had been aware that an audit had been undertaken, they had received no feedback on how their practice could be improved.
A few examples of good audits were seen. In one local authority, an audit of the initial early help assessment and plan had been undertaken approximately six weeks after the early help plan had been put in place. The audit template was good in that it sought to identify and evaluate the quality and impact of the multi-agency intervention on the experiences of the child. The audit was appropriately challenging of the lack of management oversight recorded on the file. It made appropriately positive comments about the assessment, plan and the impact to date of the plan on the child’s experiences. It sought to ensure that the children’s experiences were being considered and reviewed and how the parents contributed to the plan. The audit was shared with the professional with responsibility for coordinating the early help plan and the manager so that the improvements could be embedded into the service.
The current approach to quality assuring and monitoring the effectiveness of early help is disparate, disjointed and significantly underdeveloped. Some LSCBs have undertaken audit activity that has a specific focus on the effectiveness of early help, although it is acknowledged by most that audits are overly process-focused and do not adequately focus on outcomes for children. Five LSCBs were yet to commission audit work that examined the quality and effectiveness of early help work.
Local authorities and their partners have limited information on how early help is improving children’s circumstances. Local areas can point to individual targeted services that have improved outcomes for a particular group of children in relation to specific needs, for example the high take-up of the nursery offer for two-year-olds or the reduction in the number of young people not in education, employment or training. Increasingly, commissioning arrangements are including outcome measures that seek to demonstrate the impact of the service on the child and family.
A range of creative early help initiatives indicate a level of awareness and a commitment to respond flexibly to the diverse needs of communities, with specific instances of success for some families. Examples from different local authorities include:
early help health professionals worked with the Traveller community to build trust and relationships, which resulted in an increase in teenage girls from the community having the HPV vaccination
a culturally matched worker was employed to work within and engage the Polish community, which resulted in increased numbers of Polish mothers attending specific groups
the joint strategic needs assessment (JSNA) identified that 57% of children with autism had limited access and support – this led to specific work to obtain the views of children with autism, which resulted in a clear autism strategy and action plan.
The local authority and/or partners have not developed systems to identify whether success is sustained in the long term for children and their families. Furthermore, analysis by the local authority and/or partners does not yet sufficiently focus on whether the ‘right’ children are receiving early help and whether early help is reducing the numbers of children that require a statutory response. This is likely to mean that, even where outcomes for individual children can be seen to be improving through early help provision, there is no way of knowing whether early help services are targeting the most vulnerable children in the area. Partnerships find it more difficult to link success, or otherwise, between early help and those children who go on to receive statutory services or require children’s social care intervention. Impact for children who receive early help and those who receive a statutory service are often seen separately and in isolation. Improved analysis that encompasses both early help and statutory services is needed to ensure that the ‘right’ children are receiving help when they need it and that the responsibility for help does not fall unfairly on the local authority.