Early intervention for children pays; so let's ask the market to invest

Intervention into the early life of a child can be crucial in halting or preventing long-term problems. So if early intervention gives good returns, and government isn't able to cough up the cash, why don't we ask the market to invest?
Graham Allen
27 July 2011

The early years of a child’s life are crucial, so early intervention makes massive savings by alleviating problems before they take root.


Image: Child Trauma Academy

One of our biggest problems in Britain is that we wait until problems are deep-rooted and intractable before we are willing to spend public money. How much better if the police and social services are liberated as they’d like to be to tackle problems before they even arise by giving our babies, children and young people social and emotional competences that most parents give their children? That is the heart of the Early Intervention project now finding support across the parties.

I've just written my second report about it for Government, 'Early Intervention: Smart Investment, Massive savings'. One of the central messages is that I believe we can get more money to help children fulfil their potential, by harnessing external investment. Many are wary, unsurprisingly. PFI has sometimes cost the tax payer dearly and there is a healthy scepticism surrounding the motivations of anyone involved in the City. But the model I recommend to start with - the Early Intervention Fund - will not pay any returns unless the intervention has been successful and the payment levels will be set by local areas and Central Government. ISAs and bonds, as I make very clear in my report, should only be considered further down the line when the market has developed further, indeed they may never be appropriate.


So, I'm not doing this because it will line the pockets of the wealthy. I'm doing this because the Early Intervention Grant will not be enough to turn round the lives of our children, and because our country cannot currently afford to pay for both solving the social problems it has now and stopping the flow of people with dysfunctional behaviour at the same time to the level that is necessary. If we do nothing, it will get more costly in the longer term, and inaction is damaging for society. For example, there is a strong upward trend in children with special educational needs and adolescent mental health statistics are worsening. Emotional problems such as depression and anxiety have been rising since the mid 1980s and conduct disorder since the mid 1970s. We have increasing problems with knife crime, and a whole host of other complex societal problems that we have not managed to address, despite all our best intentions. All these issues could be lessened significantly if children were given the social and emotional bedrock they need in their early years.

I've seen what happens when we don't get it right and I don't believe we should wait around for more failure. Let me give you an example - the fate of many kids in my constituency was underlined by a series of Ofsted inspections at primary schools which noted that although the head teacher was committed, the teaching staff excellent and the buildings refitted and refurbished, the children were still not attaining. 'Why?' they asked, and then answered their own question by noting that too many children arrive at school 'unable to speak in a sentence', 'unable to recognise a letter or a number' and 'are incapable of resolving differences without violence'.

I have subsequently learnt that there are evidence based programmes that can tackle these issues, and I have tried to bring them to Nottingham. However we can't afford to give them to everyone. We can only afford to put a third of the teenage mums and their children through the Family Nurse Partnership, a particularly well evidenced based programme from the States. We need more money in Nottingham North and throughout the country to stop these issues arising.

If the children are arriving at school unable to communicate, progress, or resolve differences, then the traditional model will have been to identify these children and to try and provide help to them – however sometimes it is too late. The sensitive window for emotional sensitivity and empathy lies within the first 18 months of life. Bruce Perry, an academic, has a story that illustrates this. A boy was routinely abandoned by his nanny morning to night for the first 18 months of his life before his working parents found out. By the age of 14, despite being well cared for in the interim, and a great deal of money spent in trying to treat his various problems, he was....

Rocking and humming to himself, friendless and desperately lonely and depressed: a boy who didn't want to make eye contact with other people, who still had the screaming, violent temper tantrums of a three-or-four year old; a boy who desperately needed the stimulation that his brain had missed during the first months of life.

It's just desperately sad. One of my recommendations is for regular and purposeful assessments to pick up issues like this early enough for something to be done about them. None of it is going to be particularly easy, but with political will it can be achieved.

Government needs to keep funding early intervention, and to increase expenditure. I recognise this and indeed for some complex programmes where interim predicative outcome measures can't be found then this is also the only choice. However if the market will invest in the good of the children, then I think we would be foolish to miss this opportunity. It's high time that investors reconnected with those who are more disadvantaged in society, and having a vested interest in improving their lot would be a good driving force. Ultimately if the investors don't like the rates of return that the Government and local areas will want to, and should, set cautiously, then this might not work. However I think it's worth a go to give all children the best chance they can, and I hope that the pilots that I recommend as a first step will demonstrate this.

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