Early Help – getting it right

Written by: Ann Marie Christian | Published:
Image: iStock

Early intervention is crucial if we are to give pupils the best chances of success. Ann Marie Christian offers her practical strategies and advice on creating and managing an effective early help programme

This is not a new agenda. Post Lamming, back in 2003, we were all committed to the five outcomes and the Every Child Matters agenda. Schools were expected to work with families alongside our multi-agency colleagues in supporting the holistic needs of children as a UK government initiative response to the death of Victoria Climbié.

CAFs (Common Assessment Framework) were compulsory at this time across the country and it was a big shift in a new approach to how schools worked in partnership with families. Schools previously used PSPs (Pastoral Support Plans) that were focused on re-engaging children back into learning with positive social, emotional and behavioural skills.

The “Early Help” offer was recommended by the Munro Review in 2011 – she called for a duty on local authorities to provide early help services. Ministers did not adopt this recommendation as they felt the existing duty to cooperate set out in Sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004 to be sufficient.

However, since the report, revised government guidance has clearly stated how schools should be using early help. This is tackled most recently in the revised Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory guidance document, published in 2016:

  • Page 5, paragraph 9: All school ... staff should be prepared to identify children who may benefit from early help. Early help means providing support as soon as a problem emerges at any point in a child’s life ... In the first instance, staff should discuss early help requirements with the designated safeguarding lead. Staff may be required to support other agencies and professionals in an early help assessment.
  • Page 6, paragraph 14: All staff should be aware of the early help process, and understand their role in it. This includes identifying emerging problems, liaising with the designated safeguarding lead, sharing information with other professionals to support early identification and assessment and, in some cases, acting as the lead professional in undertaking an early help assessment.
  • Annex B, Role of Designated Safeguarding Lead (page 69): Understand the assessment process for providing early help and intervention, for example through locally agreed common and shared assessment processes such as early help assessments.

What does this all mean in practice?

Early help services should support families that fall below the child protection threshold. Schools have a high volume of families that fit this description and benefit from knowing how early help services operate in their area. Schools are expected to support these families by using the early help process and signposting them to supportive services. All referrals should be made to MASH (the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub) and they should then signpost you as to how to access the local early help process if the specific concern does not meet the threshold of social care intervention.

All staff should be aware of what early help is and be able to identify children and young people who can benefit from early help and be able to act as the lead professional if ever required.

All schools should have a designated safeguarding lead (DSL) who leads on child protection matters and should consult and refer early help and child protection concerns to their local child protection services or Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs.

Ask yourself: who do your staff refer early help cases to? Do they know what early help actually is? How are they informed about this? How are school staff made aware of the early help thresholds?

Designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) should be familiar with their Local Safeguarding Children Board’s (LSCB) thresholds of child protection and know the referral pathways. Their bi-annual DSL training, in line with Keeping Children Safe in Education 2016, should equip them to feel confident about how all types of abuse (physical, emotional, neglect and sexual) present with children and young people.

Physical abuse may be one of the easiest categories to refer. Usually there are physical marks or verbal disclosures about a physical chastisement and referrals are straight-forward depending on the age of the child or explanation given by the child, parent or young person.

Emotional, neglect and occasionally sexual harm may be more difficult in referring due to the nature of explanations given and them being isolated incidents or when a family needs additional support. This is where we use the early help process – if we have concerns but know it does not meet the child protection threshold. We can use the process to engage with the child and family where appropriate to share our concerns and work in partnership to support them to improve the situation.

DSLs are also senior leaders and therefore have a heavy workload. Some schools have created pastoral care or safeguarding teams within the school to offer them additional support with their child protection duties. These teams sometimes consist of pastoral care staff, HLTAs, family support workers and deputy safeguarding leads and early help would be part of their core work.

External colleagues also play a key role: the education welfare officer completes home visits and the school nurse can refer families to specialist health practitioners – both important agencies in the early help process.

There are key staff within the school that would have regular contact with families and sometimes they work in isolation due to their location in the school or busy workload. The chaplain, school counsellor, attendance officer or “first-day-call-back” office staff have frequent contact with families and they need to be aware of when they could refer families on for early help support. For example, if a parent isn’t coping and the child is refusing to listen to them or if a child is not attending school because of bereavement issues or wanting to care for their vulnerable parent.

Also, the SENCO supports children with additional needs and sometimes these parents or carers need extra support with how to manage their child’s behaviour at home and school.

Office staff and frontline receptionists also have a lot of contact with families and often form healthy working relationships with parents. They offer a listening ear to parents who feel comfortable talking to them.

The school needs to have a non-judgemental approach in order to make these families feel at ease and remove the stigma of being a vulnerable family. Schools should have cosy rooms with soft furniture and a child-friendly atmosphere set aside to encourage families to stop and talk – this helps set a welcoming atmosphere.

It is important for schools to train all staff on how to spot and report child protection concerns including low level concerns that often contribute towards the early help identification. MASHs often use RAG (red, amber, green) systems – red means urgent protection cases requiring immediate action, amber means non-urgent child protection (no imminent danger) or more information is needed to consider the threshold, and green means the case is not meeting the thresholds or could benefit from early help intervention and preventative services. Schools could consider using a similar system. Red would mean a direct referral to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs, amber would mean beginning the early help process, and green would mean monitor regularly internally.

Early Help Toolkit: Key tasks

  • Ensure the DSL and deputies attend the Local Early Help training via the LSCB.
  • Identify key staff that would be proactive in supporting the Early Help process within the school and local community (preferably non-teaching staff so they are available to meet parents during the day). Up-skill them and ensure they attend the LSCB Early Help training.
  • Create the safeguarding or pastoral care team in your school.
  • Network with colleagues in other agencies – for example school nurse, education welfare office, duty MASH social worker, etc – and create network meetings and meet at least half termly or fortnightly to review vulnerable families and children.
  • Invest in a child and parent-friendly “cosy room” in the school with soft furnishing and a sense of privacy where you can talk to parents in a relaxing informal environment.
  • Train the whole staff on early help and ensure they know how to identify children that would benefit from it. This can be part of the INSET child protection training (use case studies where one would result in a referral to the MASH and the other in a referral to early help).
  • Ensure the school has a paragraph on early help and the local referral pathway (and how to access it) in the child protection policy documentation and an early help tab on your website to encourage staff to approach the school when in need of support.
  • Create a list of children who are accessing early help and review this on a regular basis.
  • Monitor children and young people that fall below the child protection thresholds regularly and activate appropriate support when needed. This would involve feedback from key staff in school involved with the child. These meetings and discussions should have written notes filed and stored in a secure place.
  • Cases that are closed or “stepped down” to schools from MASH or other teams in social care could be added to the list to be monitored or stepped up for early help if required.
  • Ensure the DSL is familiar with the local services that support families via the early help process. The directory can usually be found on the local authority’s website.


Further information


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