Early intervention report – promising, but patience needed

By Benedict Rickey 11 July 2011

‘We feel it is vital that the Government now begins the groundwork to enable our late reaction culture to be transcended by an Early Intervention one. Our collective view is that the moment for a serious, sustained programme of Early Intervention… has arrived.’

So begins Graham Allen MP’s report to government, Early Intervention: Smart Investment, Massive Savings. Not for a long time have I been so excited by the opening lines of a government report. Many of my colleagues feel the same.

Why are we so keen on early intervention? Over the past 10 years, NPC has plugged many charities that do evidence-based early intervention, like the Place2Be, CSV and ChanceUK. These charities’ interventions take children and young people at risk of developing problems like conduct disorder, substance misuse and criminal behaviour, and steer them along the path to a life that is better for them, and society at large. By preventing behaviours that cost government money (like anti-social behaviour) they are highly likely to create savings.

Early intervention isn’t a new idea, nor is this the first government report on the subject. What’s new and interesting about this report is that it says how government as a whole should make the cultural shift towards early intervention; the highlights include:

  • Central government should lead the shift to early intervention, by departments progressively moving their budget across from late to early intervention every year (at a rate of 1% per year)
  • Government should promote the creation of an Early Intervention Foundation to: motivate organisations in early intervention; prove the early intervention programmes; work with pioneers in this area; and raise long-term finance for early intervention from non-governmental sources.
  • Government should get departments to make outcomes-based payments for early intervention programmes, and then (working with other players) it should use this to lever in social investment from foundations, philanthropists and other investors (as has been done for Social Impact Bonds).

Allen’s recommendations are welcome. If taken forward by government, they will represent a huge step forward for evidence-based early intervention. But this blog isn’t just about cheering Graham Allen on from the sidelines, its about giving him some friendly advice about his idea for early intervention Social Impact Bonds: warning, patience needed!

This is speaking from experience. NPC has reviewed the evaluations of hundreds of charities, including dozens of charities working in early intervention. Only a few charities have really good evidence of their impact. Even these tend to have data just for the two or three years after an intervention. They then use this data as an indicator of long-term success. Barely any have conducted studies that follow young people over many years to discover their impact into adulthood (longitudinal studies). So we need more longitudinal studies, as without these it is hard to be sure whether an intervention is truly successful.

In addition, whilst there are various calculations of the economic benefits to the state of early intervention programmes, they should be treated with caution. In the absence of longitudinal studies, researchers typically have to speculate about the likely cost to the state had the child not received the intervention. There is a high risk that the speculation turns out to be inaccurate.

So we often don’t have the right evidence about outcomes for children and young people. On top of that, its often hard to be sure that an outcome is the result of a specific charity. Say a child gets help from a charity when she is five. 11 years down the line, whilst many of her friends are in trouble, she is on the straight and narrow – studying hard for her GCSEs, behaving herself at home. By not getting into trouble, she costs less to the government. Is that down to the charity? Between the ages of five and 16, a lot of things affect the life of a child – their parents, their peer group, their teachers, the clubs they join. So tracing a good outcome back to a charity that helped them when they were five gets harder and harder as the years pass.

Graham Allen’s report recognises all these challenges, and even says that we need more longitudinal studies of early interventions and better data on savings. So this blog won’t be news to him. However, I think these challenges will be a bigger barrier to developing  early intervention Social Impact Bonds than he envisages.  So, though this report is a big step forward,  patience and hard slog is now needed to bring these Bonds to market.