I find it difficult to resist a quiz, so I have completed the One You quiz to see how well I do when it comes to healthy living. It is the government's latest effort to get us off our backsides to take better care of ourselves. The campaign, led by Public Health England, has been criticised, particularly over its slightly patronising tone. But more than half-a-million have now taken part, which is no bad thing. Whatever they feel about this latest campaign, most generally agree that getting in early to help people live well will help them stay healthier for longer. It is the principle that underpins the new tax on sugary soft drinks, for example.
Yet when it comes to helping families and young children, it is a principle that gets trampled over time and time again. There is no shortage of evidence to demonstrate that prevention and early intervention can have a positive, defining impact on a child's life, as well as saving taxpayers' money in the long run. So, just as with One You in health, you'd expect a broad alliance of politicians, government departments, educational authorities and Third Sector organisations to work together to help struggling parents and to give vulnerable children the life chances that our children and yours have enjoyed.
When it comes to the poorest children, it doesn't work like that. According to a recent report by a coalition of charities, including Action for Children, the National Children's Bureau and the Children's Society, funding from central government to local authorities for early intervention services will have been cut by around two-thirds by 2020. That adds up to around £2.2 billion which is being taken away from those who need it most. Sure Start children's centres have suffered enormous damage but there have also been devastating cutbacks in provision ranging from teenage pregnancy services to short breaks for carers of children with special needs. It is fiendishly difficult to secure additional support in schools for children with behavioural problems.
While this has been going on, largely under the radar and with little debate, the number of care applications for children has risen significantly in England. In 2011-12 there were 10,255 applications and already in the current year, with one month to go, the number has risen to 11,513.
I can't claim any academic expertise in this area, and I am sure there are better qualified people who will tell me that the reasons for this are complex. But as a parent and foster carer my instinct is that there inevitably must be a connection between the loss of support in a community and the number of children who are taken into care.
So much of the policy focus recently has been on getting parents into work as a route out of poverty, and in pure economic terms it is difficult to argue against this approach. But it is often the case that by compelling a parent to seek employment, at the risk of losing benefits, a difficult situation can be made worse unless the right support is put in place. Managing childcare while holding down a job is a nightmare, even for the well-heeled and well-educated. But vulnerable families are just that: they may have no relatives, no friends and no money to help care for children when they are not at school. Under these circumstances the risk of neglect becomes even greater.
Of course, a community should not rely on state funding alone to help the most vulnerable. We all have a responsibility to offer a helping hand to those in need. Children who suffer from neglect or abuse are often marginalised at school, while parents struggling to hold their families together can find the school gate to be an unforgiving environment.
As foster carers our own 'early intervention' is often focused on building trust with parents and connecting our foster children with the networks that other children take for granted. A neglected child who is given the chance to eat well, sleep well and wear clean clothes also discovers that the playground is a much happier place. Other kids want to play football with you, climb trees and ask you round for tea. Confidence builds and, suddenly, the world is full of all kind of possibilities.
At the school gates parents mellow and become curious about this child's new lease of life. So often, they admit they were aware of problems, but felt it was not their place to become involved. Sometimes, there are genuine concerns for their own safety. But mostly, I am sad to say, it is down to indifference.
It would be wonderful if the government woke up to the transformational nature of well-funded, consistent early intervention schemes. Maybe one day it will happen. But in the meantime there is so much more that you and I can do through our own early intervention efforts.Suggest a correction