Case study: Developing an Early Help offer in response to Covid

Written by: Laura McPhee | Published:
Helping hand: Loughborough Primary has been developing an Early Help pilot based around Maslow’s hierarchy of need

Given the impact of the pandemic on families and children’s lives, work is on-going in Lambeth to revisit and revamp intervention and support via the Early Help offer. Headteacher Laura McPhee explains

Our friends, family, colleagues and communities have had their lives changed in significant ways and the effects of the pandemic will be far-reaching for many. Some have been more severely affected than others and we know that those from ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

Of course racial inequality is not limited to health outcomes. Dr Jo Casebourne, chief executive of the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), points out that the lack of parity that still exists in society must be tackled head-on: “Children from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as their white counterparts. And it is not acceptable that young black Caribbean children are more than twice as likely to receive a permanent school exclusion than the school population as a whole. We need to understand better how these disparities arise and what works best to help reduce them.”

The Financial Conduct Authority has reported that the number of people now struggling with low financial resilience has increased by a third to 14.2 million (FCA, 2021).

This includes families with significant debt, low saving levels or low and erratic earnings. These families have subsequently found themselves in an extremely challenging position.

Learning loss for pupils has also been widely reported (DfE, 2021) and at the same time we are still learning about the social and emotional impact. For example, the NSPCC says that contacts to its helpline about domestic violence and abuse increased by 32 per cent during the first lockdown, with an average of one contact every hour (NSPCC, 2020).

Early Help: The Challenge

Given the current landscape, it is perhaps no surprise that settings are revisiting and revamping their Early Help offer. Also known as early intervention, this is the support given to a family when challenges first arise. It can be provided at any stage in a child or young person’s life.

Early Help is not a new concept. We have seen various incarnations dating back to the 19th century, when the first trained health visitors and nurses visited the homes of families with very young children and advised on infant health and wellbeing.

However, policy surrounding Early Help is a relatively new invention. Ten years ago, Graham Allen MP produced the first government-commissioned report on the approach (Allen, 2011).

The report noted: “The central problem for all developed countries, especially ours, is that intervention happens too late, when health, social and behavioural problems have become deeply entrenched in children’s and young people’s lives.

“Delayed intervention increases the cost of providing a remedy for these problems and reduces the likelihood of actually achieving one. More often than not, delayed intervention results only in expensive palliative measures that fail to address problems at their source.”

So how far have we come since 2011? While anecdotally we may be able to recount successes and barriers to success, it is difficult to reliably measure how effective individual early intervention programmes have been. This is in part due to the long-term nature of early intervention. Given that the objective of most plans is to have a positive impact early in a child’s life to prevent issues later on, evaluation should therefore follow the recipient into later life. However, longitudinal studies are often complex and expensive.

Mr Allen’s report recommended a rigorous methodology for evaluating early intervention programmes and this work has been adopted by the EIF, which seeks to more reliably evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches.

Early Access: The Pilot

In the current climate questions are being asked about what can realistically be achieved as schools and councils face huge funding pressures. Loughborough Primary School is developing an exciting new pilot that seeks to answer some of these questions. We have the privilege of taking part in Lambeth’s Early Help Strategic Group, supporting colleagues across the borough to create a partnership-wide Early Help Strategy.

Chair of the group and assistant director of Early Help, access and assessment, Brenda McInerney, explained: “Our strategic group brings together partners from across the community to reimagine and redesign Early Help and the roles that each of us play. Our schools in Lambeth have the highest ambitions for their children and they are an integral element of our Early Help offer.”

This pilot has encouraged us to examine our own Early Help offer, ask challenging questions and view this work through a new lens. The model is based on the principles of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) – a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. From the bottom upwards, the needs are: physiological, safety, social, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

Recent research acknowledges the limitations of Maslow’s hierarchy. For example, our needs are not necessarily hierarchical. Life is messier than this: our needs are intricate and dependent on a range of factors. Maslow’s theory also lacks validity across a range of cultures and the expectations of the hierarchy may be limited to Western societies (McLeod, 2018). For these reasons it is more helpful to think of our needs as overlapping circles rather than the traditional hierarchical pyramid (see figure 1).

What did we do?

The designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) agreed four key principles underlying the school’s Early Help offer. The aspiration is to develop a sustainable, comprehensive offer that meets these objectives over time and reflects Maslow’s principles. The four principles are:

  • To ensure there is parity, equity and equality of opportunity for pupils, families and the wider community.
  • To improve the health and wellbeing of the wider school community.
  • To ensure our pupils and school community have every opportunity to be successful.
  • To ensure families have access to early intervention that is aligned to their wants, needs and goals.

The DSLs carried out an extensive consultation with a range of stakeholders, including parents, teaching and support staff, community police officers, health teams, the local authority PSHE lead, and specialist practitioners (including the advice and expertise of the local authority’s Early Help working party).

We made further improvements to our Early Help offer based on feedback from the consultation. For example, nursing and health teams were quick to point out the cyclical nature of mental health work; they were clear that “well intended”, ambitious SMART targets can sometimes limit the progress of families who might benefit from an open dialogue and regular reviews.

Parents also provided us with excellent feedback about how they would like to see social and self-esteem needs developed. As a result, the school has extended its wrap-around offer and is working more closely with our Children’s Centre. We are also working closely with charitable organisations such as BLAM (Black Learning Achievement Mental Health), which delivers a curriculum project to year 5 pupils promoting positive narratives for black pupils and providing a range of additional services including free racial wellness therapy and an advocacy service for parents of black British pupils who need representation after exclusion.

So, what does our revised offer include?

Stage 1: Physiological needs

  • Spare uniform for pupils, including plimsols and PE kit.
  • Food bank vouchers available.
  • A new attendance policy including unannounced home visits. A walking bus is provided. Partnership working with the education welfare officer.
  • Fully funded places at breakfast and after-school clubs.
  • Partnership with the national breakfast programme (every pupil offered a bagel on arrival to school).
  • Family liaison officer on-site to support with issues (including housing).
  • Families signposted to local and national agencies such as Violence Against Women and Girls and Gaia (a domestic violence charity).
  • Close partnership working with the Children’s Centre.

Stage 2: Safety needs

  • High expectations of behaviour across the school.
  • An internal commitment to reduce fixed term exclusions.
  • The introduction of after-school/Saturday school “reflections” as a supportive measure to reduce fixed term exclusions and provide time for reflection with a trusted adult.
  • Close working partnership with the local authority Behaviour and Inclusion Team, colleagues at Children’s Social Services and local health teams, and community police (coffee mornings with parents, pupil talks, a gaming club for vulnerable pupils).
  • Regular access to a school nurse working in partnership with the family liaison officer.
  • A broad therapeutic offer including horse-riding, art therapy, play therapy. Curriculum opportunities to facilitate character development and character education (reflected in the PSHE progression grid and PSHE policy).

Stage 3: Social Needs

  • A new SEND strategy including new provision-mapping.
  • Close collaboration with parents, families and community (e.g. international evening and fundraising events).
  • Access to nurture groups and gardening with a play therapist.
  • A behaviour policy which reflects our approach to restorative justice.
  • Mental health champions in year 5.

Stage 4: Self-esteem

  • Close working partnerships with community groups and charities including Growing Against Violence and BLAM as already mentioned.
  • Established school council promoting pupil voice.
  • Pupils have the opportunity to take part in social justice campaigns.
  • Pupils have the opportunity to take part in curriculum activities which are rooted in “real-world” contexts and reflect their locality (e.g. clean air installation).
  • Pupil conferencing
  • “Book looks” with senior and middle leaders which include reflection on how diversity and inclusion has been captured and evidenced through the curriculum (for more on our work here, see McPhee, 2021).

Stage 5: Self-actualization

  • Leaders at all levels are relentless in their pursuit of excellence, ambitious for all pupils and expect all pupils to do their best.
  • Pupils are given the opportunity and freedom to explore and make their discoveries through a broad range of learning experiences (e.g. access to an in-house science lab via the Phiz Labs initiative, the co-construction of drama productions with Unicorn Theatre, and access to the art studio and in-house art specialist).
  • Explicit teaching of metacognitive approaches support actualisation.
  • Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2021/22 – outlining key priorities for pupils, leaders and the community. This is also reflected in the School Development Plan and the school’s equalities objectives.

Early answers

At Loughborough Primary this work stream is closely monitored by our named safeguarding governor and the Teaching and Learning Committee. The local authority DSL lead is also available to advise and support.

To ensure we keep our local offer relevant, we keep it under regular review. We are a listening community at heart and we must recognise that this requires an open, honest exchange and a high level of supportive challenge.

We continue to use a qualitative and quantitative evidence-base to inform our work, ensuring that Early Help means early access and results in early answers for our families. 

  • Laura McPhee is headteacher at Loughborough Primary School, Lambeth. Visit She is also board member of the Virtual School Management Board and local authority governor at Sellincourt Primary in Wandsworth. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

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