Starting Well: giving young people the best chance in life
The University of Winchester and Southern Policy Centre have been working together to encourage what we believe is a timely and important debate about how we can secure a better life for all members of society. On 26th January the University hosted the third in a series of seminars exploring aspects of our health and wellbeing at different stages of life, this one looking at how we can give children the best start.
The discussion was Chaired by Mary Edwards, Chair of the University’s Governors, and heard excellent presentations from Steve Crocker, Hampshire’s Director of Children’s Services, Julie Greer, Regional Co-ordinator for regional coordinator for the National Centre for Family Hubs, and Nick Ward, Paediatric Consultant at Hampshire Hospitals Foundation Trust.
This note discusses some of the issues which emerged from the evening’s discussion. It’s not a verbatim note of proceeding, more a review of the themes which emerged from the seminar and an assessment of the topics we need to address if we are to give our children the best start in life.
Helping children start well
Steve Crocker began our seminar talking about the importance of early support and, where necessary, intervention for younger children, suggesting “prevention is better than cure.” Hampshire offer a range of services, with an approach based on a continuum of need: with services designed to offer the highest support to those facing the greatest challenges. For Steve it is vital that we take an holistic view of children’s lives and the challenges they face, and work in a co-ordinated way to ensure the best outcomes.
Julie Greer spoke about three topics which could help children start well: language, relationships and an understanding of risk. Taken together, they were a vital part of building a child’s confidence and social skills. They’re not easy and sometimes a family will need support and the sort of services Steve had outlined. Julie spoke about the model offered by Family Hubs: a government initiative to integrate local services to better provide for families with children from pre-birth to 19 (25 for those with SEND). Their virtual and physical offer allows all families to access a broad and integrated range of early help including Best Start for Life.
A further perspective on the challenges children may face was offered by Nick Ward, who spoke about the prevalence of asthma and diabetes in young children in our communities, as well as growing concerns about children’s mental health. He explained poor health is often closely linked to wider socio-economic deprivation experienced by families, and where parents may also need help and support. For Nick it was essential that we better co-ordinate children’s health and social services. And a really important message was the necessity of listening to children and hearing their concerns.
Some big issues
Julie Greer asked whether our society is ‘childist.’ The website Toca Boca defines childism as “the radical notion that kids need to be respected as human beings,” whilst the more sober Wikipedia definition suggests the word can refer either to advocacy for empowering children or to prejudice and/or discrimination against children.
Either way, it’s an encouragement to look at children and their needs differently, and not simply assume ‘adults know best.’ Taking the child’s perspective was a consistent theme for all our speakers, indeed Nick Ward suggested we need to look at our interventions and actions from the child’s perspective.
Steve Crocker raised another major issue when he illustrated the nationwide growth in the number of Child Protection Investigations and Child Protection Plans in the past 12 years, suggesting “a sense of anxiety about our children”. He went on to challenge us, asking whether this reflected more problems or simply heightened worries which may not be justified. This sense of anxiety can perhaps slip over into the childism mentioned above, and the restrictions an excessive degree of (adult) concern may cause. Julie Greer’s observations on our willingness or otherwise to allow children to explore and take risks perhaps reflects the same adult-driven perspective.
Julie Greer also cautioned care in making policies to support children. There is a real risk that such policies may inadvertently further disadvantage the most disadvantaged in our society because they are seen as disproportionately applicable to some sectors of our population over others, whereas those who are more advantaged may at times appear to be further advantaged by greater access: for example where the means for preferential access to a service may be seen as ‘queue jumping.’
A fourth topic raised by all our speakers was the importance of a coherent, integrated approach to supporting children across agencies and sectors. There is already much good practice across the central South, and Steve Crocker spoke about the County Council’s programme to transform Children’s Services which, inter alia, seeks to provide better integration across agencies. In the health sector the move to Integrated Care Services (ICS) driven by the Health & Social Care Bill currently before Parliament should offer a better focus for services to work together in supporting all parts of our communities.
A final consistent topic was resources. Change in how we view, deliver and grow services to support children will have inevitable costs. Whilst initiatives such as a move to Integrated Care should help create better, more efficient and effective systems, that will still require investment. However, many organisations, notably our local councils, have experienced what one participant called “massive disinvestment” in recent years. That has harmed many initiatives designed to achieve the early intervention our speakers called for, and it is only now that initiatives such as Family Hubs are beginning to offer some fresh resources.
Some important messages
Our seminar offered an interesting opportunity to view a world largely designed by adults from a child’s perspective. Steve, Julie and Nick all in different ways encouraged us to re-focus our thinking, to look at the child’s needs and not impose what adults believe to be best for them. That requires co-design, with a child’s voice being brought into policy making and planning.
Moreover, that approach should not be limited just to the education and health services we discussed in our seminar. It can equally apply to how we think about planning all aspects of life in our villages, towns and cities for the future: with an eye on child health, safety, learning and leisure.
There are, I suggest, five messages for policy makers from our seminar:
- We need to change society’s attitudes towards childhood and children. We are all guilty of childism at some point or another, albeit usually inadvertently. We must wake up to that bias and think about how it can be corrected.
- We must change our focus, designing services, places and policies with a child’s perspective in mind. Often the best way of doing that is involving children in the process – when our approach will need to be very different from that taken with adults.
- Our silo-based perception of public services needs to change. Poor outcomes for children are often a consequence of wider socio-economic issues, from food poverty to poor housing. Addressing these issues needs to be part of our plan for a better start for children.
- Service integration is essential if we are to secure the best outcomes for children. That requires collaboration across organisations and may need investment, so an urgent debate is required about funding and prioritisation. That in turn means we need an intelligent conversation about the value of – and down-the-line savings offered by – early intervention.
- Children need advocacy and a voice in policy making and planning across all sectors. Most upper tier local authorities have political leads for Children’s Services who can be a champion, other organisations should ask whether they have senior advocates for children. That’s also true nationally, the short-lived Department for Children, Schools & Families, which offered a different perspective on policy, was dissolved in 2010.
If you have any comments on this blog or the issues surrounding it we’d be happy to hear from you. Please contact SPC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Director, Southern Policy Centre