A quarter of Early Help referrals refused support

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

Vulnerable families are being left without crucial support because a quarter of Early Help referrals from schools are being returned without action.

Freedom of Information data reveals that from 2018 to 2022, there was a 156% increase in the number of referrals being made via Early Help and a 96% increase in the average number of referrals being returned without action.

The figures have been published by School-Home Support, a national charity which supports families whose children are severely and persistently absent.

The data has been collected from 30 local authorities and covers a six-year period from 2016 to 2022. It shows that almost one in four Early Help referrals from schools in that time were returned without action.

The charity says that this lack of support is allowing issues to escalate and that this is a key factor in recent rises in school absence.

According to Department for Education figures, 35% of children eligible for free school meals were persistently absent in autumn 2021 and spring 2022, compared with 18% of pupils who were not eligible.

Early Help sees councils working with schools to provide family support when home issues affect school attendance and learning.

However, Early Help is not a statutory service, and the charity is concerned that many councils have been forced to cut preventative services like family support in order to safeguard statutory obligations such as social care services.

School-Home Support says that thresholds to trigger Early Help support are now so high that schools are being forced to pick up the pieces.

It comes a year after an investigation by Action for Children, as Headteacher Update reported at the time, revealed that 9 in 10 local authorities report cutting spending on early intervention services between 2015 and 2020.

The same investigation highlighted at least 320,000 “missed opportunities” to provide Early Help to vulnerable children between 2015/16 and 2019/20 – an average of 64,000 children a year.

When children are referred to social services for an assessment but do not meet the threshold for social care support, social workers have the option to close the assessment and make a “step down” referral to early help. Action for Children estimates there were 1.26 million occasions where a closed assessment did not lead to an Early Help referral. In 25% of these cases, the child in question was re-referred to social care within 12 months, suggesting there were 320,000 missed opportunities to offer Early Help in this period.

School-Home Support is now launching a campaign, called Dig a Little Deeper, calling for a £90.2m investment to pay for a service of family support practitioners to support the 19 Priority Education Investment Areas, unveiled last year as part of the Levelling Up White Paper (DfE, 2022). This would provide 2,225 practitioners nationally, supporting 194,000 children and their families.

Persistent absence in these areas currently exceeds the national average of 12.1%, according to School-Home Support (based on 2020/21 figures).

The charity has proposed the policy be funded from existing government programmes for families, including the Supporting Families programme.

According to the charity’s most recent impact report, demand for support with school attendance has never been greater. Jaine Stannard, chief executive, said: “Schools are doing what they can to support families, but they can’t do it all. This is a ticking timebomb. Unless new resources are allocated for family support around schools, some families will be lost from education for good.

“There are huge benefits to engaging the whole family in school attendance work. If we can improve the home learning environment, as well as attendance in the short term, the impact on community education and skills could be exponential.”

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