Across the UK there are discussions about how to better help children and families. These discussions take many forms: sometimes this is discussed as prevention, or achieving better outcomes. Sometimes this work is driven by changes in legislation (as is the case with Education and Health Care Plans – EHCP) or alterations in assessment criteria (within Ofsted inspections), or as a result of scandals around the mishandling of child safety on a large scale.
Most of the people involved in developing new ways of helping children are motivated by a desire to improve the well-being of children – most of them. They want to make things better and have the knowledge needed to make improvements across large geographical areas (towns, cities, regions, even countries). Where their knowledge lets them down significantly is in their understanding of the experiences and views of families. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the design of what is being called ‘Early Help’ for children and families.
I am the parent of a child with multiple disabilities. I know something of the difficulties of getting help and intervention for your child. I know how brick walls you have to hit before you can finally get through to a person who will take the time to assess and understand your child’s difficulties. This first breakthrough is necessary before you can take the first steps towards getting your child the intervention they need. For my family this took five years of going around in circles, interspersed with being pinged between departments and specialisms. After a process like this, a family will be offered ‘Early Help’.
I also know a lot of other families who have a child with disabilities or special education needs (SEN). When I explain to this other families about ‘Early Help’ they think it is hilarious. And not peculiar funny, but painfully and tragically funny. You know, the kind of funny where you are laughing hysterically while sobbing and shouting at the same time – that kind of funny.
The notion of ‘Early Help’ really does beg the question of for whom is it early? Not for families of children with disabilities. It’s not even early for families of children with behaviour problems. I know so many parents who have children who have made really bad choices in the past – they’ve got themselves in trouble with the police, faced exclusion from school or generally brought worry and peril to the doorstep of the family. Every single family I have ever met in these difficult situations has been asking for help for years. For. Years. For years they have tried everything they could think of. They have begged anyone who would listen for help and they have been criticised by everyone else. When something inevitably happens (as they had always said it would) and their child does something that draws the attention of the courts, or the action of the school, or a trip to the hospital…then they are offered ‘Early Help’. They too cry their own tears. But their tears have no laughter, not even bitter, ironic laughter – just tears.
The truth is, whether the formal processes offer ‘prevention’, ‘outcomes’ or ‘early help’ the same basic error is always made. The understanding of the process begins with the involvement of an agency, or an institution or a local authority. This is not how families work. They have been involved in a child’s life since the day that child came wriggling and squirming into their life. Most families are already beyond breaking point when they ask for help. Asking for help is often their last resort – the final thing they try to make things better.
Processes being designed to help children and families would do well to keep this in mind. In truth what is often meant by ‘Early Help’ is ‘the point at which not doing something might cost a lot more money than offering help’. Early Help/prevention etc means not being in prison, permanently excluded, taken into care or seriously mentally ill (or at least not yet). This is not a message families want to hear and it is certainly not a message that a child should be exposed to at any point.
I think that what agencies, local authorities, safeguarding boards etc mean is that something needs to better. I think a change of language would be helpful for this process and I think this should go along with a genuine change of perspective and focus to involve families and children in a genuine way. My question would then be – ‘what would that look like?’
I think that what we need would not look dissimilar to what we have – we just need a shift in perspective. Most long term problems children face are due to the fact their difficulties are complex or acute or are due to the fact that their family circumstances need more stability and consistency. The simple fact is that making these situations better is going to take the concerted effort of a wide range of people with a raft of different disciplines and specialisms. Efforts will need to be co-ordinated and will need to aim beyond the remit of anyone one particular service or agency.
The idea of over-arching aims is necessary for a number of reasons. Most services now are resource driven rather than led by need – essentially very few children get what they need, they get what has been commissioned to be delivered. That’s not a criticism of this situation but it is a statement of reality. Furthermore, in most likelihood, the complexity of the child/family’s situation will mean that no one agency would have it within their ability to solve the problem anyway.
As the aims and outcomes being sought will be outside of any one agency’s scope, it makes sense that the outcomes should be set in line with the child or family’s hopes. It is surely better to aim for something worth having than to let all efforts be dictated to by what is available. Anyway, most agencies will be long gone before many of the outcomes are achieved and most children and families want a happy and healthy life filled with fun and safety. Why not aim for that? Or aim for whatever the family feel is within their reach?
The question of language comes back again. To ask for help for your child is to plunge yourself into a world of jargon, acronyms and professional-babble. Worse than that, every department and agency has their own particular version of professional-babble. Often, they don’t even understand each other – What hope does a family or child have? Surely, the most sensible solution is to use language that a family would understand? If plain, simple language is used then everyone (family, professionals etc) will understand. By simple language I mean using words in the way that anyone would understand them (e.g. most people do not ‘stretch targets’, ‘map provision’, ‘aim high’, ‘apply national minimum expected standards for the key stage’ etc). It shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but perhaps the best way to help children is to just speak to each other normally and find out what the parents and children would find most helpful.
In order to plan how to help a child there will have to be shared understanding. There will have to be a neutral, common ground that everyone can use as the basis for planning interventions and checking if things are working. This can’t be one agency’s process and paperwork as that will necessarily only look in one narrow area. There needs to be a shared plan, written in simple language, that anyone could understand and that reflects the views and perspectives of families.
We used to have this in the UK. It was called a Common Assessment Framework but it was misunderstood. Many professional saw it as outside of their jobs to be involved in it and most viewed it as an extra piece of paperwork. Some parents incorrectly thought it was a punishment or accusation of poor parenting and few people reflected the views of children in their planning and recording of progress.
I worry that some of these mistakes will be repeated in the redesign of the Common Assessment Framework (and the design of ‘Early Help’ and ‘prevention’). Obviously, no professional or family want to fill in a form that they view to be a waste of time. What any intervention to help a child should be is a process – An on-going process that aims to make real and lasting positive changes in the life of a child who is struggling. That is what families will sign up to. That, in my experience, is what families have been requesting for a very long time. A plan – a multi-agency plan – using language families can understand and that reflects the views of the families and children affected. I would still object to the word ‘early’ being used, but ’help’ is something that I will always be grateful for.
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