The impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable children and families

24 September 2020

By Jo Casebourne (Chief Executive, Early Intervention Foundation)

Ensuring evidence is part of the response to Covid-19

The Early Intervention Foundation is an independent charity, but we are also part of the What Works Network. This means we often play a role of being a critical friend to government when trying to ensure that evidence – in our case, often social science evidence — gets used to change both policy and practice.  We also help government join-up the agenda of vulnerable children and families across Whitehall. So during Covid-19, we have been working closely with all the government departments that fund us (Department for Education, Department for Work and Pensions, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Department of Health and Social Care, the Home Office and Public Health England) to make sure they have got the robust evidence they need about how Covid-19 is directly affecting services for vulnerable children and families.

Our work started as we responded to the big questions posed by our local and national audiences in the immediate aftermath of the country going into Covid-19 lockdown. We provided direct advice to government for policy questions such as what the pandemic might mean for children’s development in the early years. We took a rapid look at the evidence for virtual and digital service delivery, as so much face-to-face delivery had to be transformed almost overnight. We spoke to local authorities, headteachers and early intervention service providers across the country to find out how they were adapting and what their immediate concerns were, and we responded to Select Committee enquires in the House of Commons and the Lords on the impact of the pandemic on children.

So, what have we found from this work so far?

The initial impact of Covid-19

Our survey of providers of early intervention services found that the sector had mobilised rapidly to enable the remote and digital delivery of interventions.  Our evidence review found that virtual and digital interventions can be effective in improving outcomes for children and young people. However, despite promising anecdotal evidence (for example, that some young people and parents felt more comfortable opening up to support workers through digital means), there is little evidence to suggest that virtual and digital interventions are more effective than traditional face-to-face approaches in delivering outcomes. They can also bring challenges in the form of higher rates of drop-out. We really need to know more about which of these new approaches improve outcomes for children, and which don’t, so we are now providing support to local areas to help them evaluate their adapted services, to ensure that we learn about the effectiveness of digital delivery during Covid-19.

Our early research found school closures, social distancing and the lockdown have seriously affected the ability of services to support children and families at the very time that these families are facing even greater challenges. Immediate concerns centred on the difficulties of protecting vulnerable children when home visits were severely restricted, and many vulnerable children were not in school or early years’ provision. Interviewees highlighted that low school attendance had interrupted usual safeguarding mechanisms: teachers were no longer seeing many of the children they may have been concerned about, and so were less able to spot new problems as they emerged. Professionals were also concerned about their ability to identify children who may become vulnerable as a result of the pandemic and emergency lockdown measures.

Our interviews also painted a picture of widespread apprehension about the future. Put simply, the professionals we spoke to were concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the lives of children who were already vulnerable, and were concerned that the full extent of the hardships faced by families had not yet become apparent. They were also concerned about the ability of early help and wider family support services to manage a potentially significant increase in demand once the lockdown measures were eased.

Some good news

Our research also found that the response of local services to the situation has been characterised by innovation and rapid adaptation. Overall our findings showed actions of dedicated professionals, and in some cases the wider community, pulling together in an extraordinary effort to protect vulnerable children and support families in this time of crisis. Our interviewees told us vivid stories of adaptation and innovation happening across the country, of new partnerships and collaborations seeded and grown, of silos between agencies broken down, of old inertia cast off. It is vital that the lessons from this burst of adaptation are learned and retained, and that precious gains – such as schools working more closely with early help services – are carried forward in the future. The old normal is not returning any time soon, and the approaches conceived under lockdown conditions will have a vital role to play for many months yet.  Some of them should become permanent.

What next?

Covid-19, as a global pandemic affecting every part of UK society, is clearly having a profound impact on the issues we care about at EIF. As lockdown conditions are eased, schools and early years provision reopen and universal service start to operate more normally, we expect the full impact of the pandemic on the lives of vulnerable children and families to come to light. Now as schools and early years settings have reopened these issues are likely to come to the fore, we anticipate a significant spike in both early help and children’s social care referrals. Services will face a double hit, not only from more families needing more support to deal with a wider range of problems, but also from the knock-on consequences of fewer children and families having received the support that would usually have been available at key moments in their lives. It is likely that some children will face increased mental health problems, levels of family conflict and domestic violence will have increased, and attainment gaps between the poorest children and their peers will have widened. These consequences will leave a lasting mark on the lives of many children and young people.

A three-year Spending Review now provides an opportunity to put investment in children and early intervention at the heart of the country’s recovery from Covid-19. Local authorities will not be able to manage the increased demand the evidence predicts, or be able to ensure that children and families receive effective and appropriate support, without a significant uplift in funding. We need meaningful investment in children’s services, including universal services provided through public health teams, and early help and targeted services, in addition to crucial investment in acute and statutory services. All of this is well-supported by evidence. We must make sure this opportunity is seized, to ensure that there is significant increased support for vulnerable children and families, so that this generation of children do not have to live with the knock-on effects of Covid-19 for the rest of their lives.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19.

Jo Casebourne is Chief Executive of the Early Intervention Foundation. The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) is an independent charity that champions and supports the use of effective early intervention to improve the lives of children and young people at risk of experiencing negative outcomes. For more information, see: www.eif.org.uk

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.