Early help: whose responsibility?

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Key findings

  • In all the local authority areas visited, arrangements were in place to provide early help to children and their families.

  • Partner agencies in those places inspected were committed to an early help approach and improving the coordination of the local early help offer.

  • Opportunities to provide early help for children and their families were missed by all statutory partners with a responsibility for this.

  • Many assessments were ineffective because they failed to sufficiently analyse or focus on what the child and family needed.

  • Professionals did not always identify or meet the individual needs of children within a family. Early help plans did not focus sufficiently on the child, often lacked clear objectives, failed to specify what needed to change and were not regularly or robustly reviewed.

  • Management oversight of early help was often underdeveloped and failed to identify or rectify weaknesses in the work being undertaken.

  • When children were referred to social care services because there were concerns about their welfare, the service or referrer often did not consider or follow through the need for early help. As a result, nothing was put in place to prevent the child’s circumstances from deteriorating. This led to further referrals for statutory social care support.

  • Too often, feedback on referrals was neither sought nor offered.

  • Partner agencies did not fully evaluate the impact and effectiveness of their early help services.

  • The planning of local services did not sufficiently recognise or address the needs of children living with parental substance misuse, mental ill health or domestic abuse.

  • LSCBs were not effectively overseeing or challenging partner agencies with regard to effective early help.

  • The current statutory framework does not give sufficient clarity and priority to the roles and responsibilities of individual agencies for early help provision.3

  • The inability to sufficiently prioritise and resource early help across agencies meant that lessons learned from serious case reviews were not being fully addressed.


The government should:

  • strengthen and specify the roles and responsibilities of local authorities and statutory partners, setting out that they must secure sufficient provision of local early help services for children, young people and families and require that an annual plan is published by the partnership and aligned with the local joint strategic needs assessment

  • require LSCBs to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of early help services and to publish their findings in the annual LSCB report.

Local authorities and partner agencies delivering early help to children and families should:

  • improve the quality and consistency of assessment and plans by:

  • promoting the use of evidence- and research-informed assessment practice

  • improving the quality of analysis in assessments

  • ensuring that assessments reflect the views and experience of the child and family

  • making the purpose clearer and improving the intended outcome

  • ensuring plans are regularly reviewed and that these reviews evaluate the child’s and family’s progress

  • provide professional supervision to all staff delivering early help and ensure that their work receives regular management oversight, particularly in respect of decisions about whether families need more formal help

  • ensure that all early help professionals have access to effective training

  • ensure that children’s needs for early help arising from parental substance misuse, mental ill health and domestic abuse are addressed in commissioning plans.

LSCBs should:

  • critically evaluate the effectiveness of early help and publish these findings in the LSCB annual report

  • monitor the quality of early help assessment, planning and management oversight through effective audit arrangements

  • develop and monitor local quality standards to ensure that early help professionals have access to effective supervision and management oversight

  • evaluate the effectiveness of the LSCB threshold document to ensure that it is understood and used appropriately by all partner agencies and that children and families are helped effectively as a result

  • monitor and evaluate whether children’s emerging needs are appropriately met elsewhere when referrals to children’s social care do not meet the locally agreed threshold for statutory intervention

  • ensure that all professionals working with families receive effective early help training.

Local authorities should:

  • ensure that when a child is referred to local authority children’s social care the referrer is consistently given good-quality feedback about the outcome of the referral

  • establish effective processes for evaluating the overall impact of early help.


  1. Large numbers of children and young people live in challenging family circumstances:

  • 2.6 million children in the UK are living with parents who drink hazardously; 705,000 of those are dependent on alcohol4

  • 110,123 adults who were parents or lived with children were treated by the National Agency for Substance Misuse in 2013–145

  • 130,000 children are living in families where family life has been damaged by past or present domestic abuse6

  • 17,000 children are living with parents with a severe and enduring mental illness7

  • 657,800 concerns about children were referred to children’s social care services during 2013–148, an increase of 10.8% compared with the previous year.

  1. Ofsted’s inspections of local authority help and protection arrangements since January 20129 have found evidence that many local areas have begun to establish early help services for families. The need for an increased focus on early help, intervention and prevention within the family was reinforced by Professor Eileen Munro10 in her review of child protection. Other supporting reviews include the work of Graham Allen11 on the benefits of early intervention programmes, Dame Clare Tickell12 on the Early Years Foundation Stage and Frank Field’s13 review on poverty. These reviews identified a growing body of evidence of the effectiveness of early help for children and their families.

  2. In setting out the principles of an effective child protection system, Munro highlighted that ‘preventative services can do more to reduce abuse and neglect than reactive services’,14 making a strong argument for local agencies to provide early help to strengthen families and reduce risk. Professor Munro’s recommendation for a duty to be placed on local authorities and statutory partners to provide an ‘early offer of help’ was not accepted by the government, as it considered the existing duty to cooperate set out in sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004 to be sufficient.15

  3. The revised ‘Working together to safeguard children16 guidance re-emphasises the crucial role of effective early help. It focuses on the collective responsibility of all agencies, including adult services, to identify, assess and provide effective targeted early help services. It places a duty on LSCBs to ensure that an agreed threshold document is in place so that all professionals are clear when it is their responsibility to help children and families as difficulties emerge.

  4. The Department for Education’s ‘Statutory guidance on the roles and responsibilities of the Director of Children’s Services and the Lead Member for Children’s Services’ refers to these important leadership roles in relation to early help, intervention and prevention with children and families. According to the guidance, Directors of Children’s Services and Lead Members for Children’s Services:

‘should understand local need and secure provision of services taking account of the benefits of prevention and early intervention and the importance of cooperating with other agencies to offer early help to children, young people and families.’17

  1. Further research18 identifies that neglect and emotional abuse are associated with the most damaging long-term consequences for children. The research found a range of challenges for practitioners in providing help when concerns for children begin to emerge. These included the following:

  • there was no shared threshold for intervention across partnerships

  • professionals found it difficult to identify these types of abuse and to decide when a threshold for action had been reached

  • these forms of harm to children were rarely acted on without a trigger incident

  • professionals often had high thresholds for recognising emotional abuse and neglect and were reluctant to act

  • thresholds for access to children’s social care were high, which may deter referrals.

The research provided extensive evidence that thresholds for access to children’s social care were too high. It also reported that professionals gave parents ‘too many chances’ to demonstrate that they could look after a child, often in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary and regardless of the further harm to children.

  1. The National Foundation for Education Research19 conducted a series of research studies focusing on the development of early help across local authority partnerships. Its findings identify both challenges and good practice and recognise that more work is needed by local authorities and their partners to establish consistently strong early help arrangements. They note that individual practitioner skills and knowledge varies and that this is pivotal in identifying children’s early help needs. ‘Working together to safeguard children’ places a clear responsibility on LSCBs to ensure that professionals are engaged in effective training to help them identify children’s needs early.

  2. Ofsted has included the inspection of early help provision by local authorities and their partners within the inspection arrangements since January 2012. Inspection reports since that time show clearly that a wide range of professionals are engaged in supporting children early as concerns emerge. For some children, outcomes are improving as a result of early identification and assessment, and the help provided has reduced risks. For others, early identification has led to children being referred promptly so they are appropriately protected by statutory children’s social care services.

  3. However, inspection findings reflect much of the research evidence. Local authorities and their partners face significant challenges in maintaining consistency and quality of practice, and in understanding roles and responsibilities for early help provision. The strategic vision of local authorities and their partners and their response to the early help needs of children require strengthening in many local authorities. The quality assurance of early help work, including the quality of early help assessments and plans, needs to improve. The effectiveness of the response to identified needs, management oversight and application of locally agreed thresholds should be more consistent. In addition, there is very little evidence about the impact of early help where there are concerns about children and their families.

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