Sunday, 11 November 2012

Frank Field: "The Prime Minister asked me to write a report on early intervention .... as far as I can tell, he hasn’t even read it.”

Early Intervention is one of those social policies that almost everyone supports: from 2008, when the political chalk-and-cheese duo Iain Duncan Smith and Graham Allen launched a joint report [PDF], to 2012 when Cameron, Clegg and Milliband voiced their praise at the party conferences, early intervention has enjoyed a remarkable run of success. Yet there is growing concern about the future of this policy, and it is increasingly difficult to tell what is happening to the Early Intervention Grant (EIG) which funds the work.

During the summer, the DFE ran a consultation on the expansion of free nursery places for two-year olds. One of the key questions was, should the scheme be funded through the EIG? The EIG is a big, block grant that councils get to fund a range of initiatives including Sure Start Children's Centres, services for disabled children, programmes to intervene early if teenagers get involved in crime, and so on. Big block grants have the advantage of allowing councils some local discretion; but that also means that councils can switch money around to plug gaps elsewhere in their budgets. Most respondents said that they wanted the funds for the two-year olds to be ring-fenced, and accordingly the DFE decided to fund the scheme through the Dedicated Schools Fund - where it can only be spent on nursery places for 2 year-olds and can't be switched elsewhere.

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister 
This seemed to most respondents - myself included - an uncontroversial option to choose. After all, we had been promised that the money for two year-olds was "new money", in addition to the EIG. Nick Clegg reiterated this promise at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in September, saying the new money came from a government underspend

However, since then there have been many, serious questions about whether this money really is "new", or whether the nursery places for two year-olds are being funded by cuts to the EIG. 

On October 14th, the Guardian reported that £450 million was being cut from the EIG over three years, and quoted from a letter Graham Allen sent to David Cameron: "The existence of a named grant was a clear prompt to councils that early intervention was a priority ... therefore it is utterly inevitable that, without dedicated funding, early intervention funding will fall as councils struggle to fund the basics." The Guardian also quoted Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, and author of the government-sponsored Tickell Review of the EYFS, saying that  "the government has shown a strong commitment to early intervention, but we're concerned a lack of clarity over the future of the early intervention grant could put this at risk."

Tickell and Allen are not people out to score easy points against the government - they have both worked closely with the coalition. Their concerns, therefore, should be taken very seriously. In addition, the response of a DFE spokesperson, quoted in the Guardian, is hardly reassuring: "There is enough funding in the system to retain a very strong national network of Sure Start centres with 3,330 currently open in the areas where they are needed most." No guarantees there about the future of Children's Centres, or the EIG - just a statement of the current numbers of centres and a claim that "a very strong network" can be maintained, without putting any figures on what that "strong network" might actually be.
Four days later, Polly Toynbee added her voice, with a fiercely critical piece about the coalition's policies on the early years, arguing that "with smoke-and-mirror explanations, the government denies the cut but says local authorities are being given more freedom to spend as they choose: yet again, this pretence at decentralising simply devolves the axe."
The next week, the Guardian again featured the story, this time highlighting the concerns of the Conservative Leader of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, who wrote to Michael Gove saying that: 

"As you would expect, we are very anxious to understand how the money withheld will be used, as it is funding for frontline services for vulnerable children, in an extremely tight financial environment. As you know, Early Intervention Grant already represented a substantial cash cut compared to the sources of funding it replaced; the additional £150m top-slice appears to suggest the government wants to see a further reduction of around £1m by each council in early support to children, young people and families that need it most ... when combined with removing the money for expansion of provision for two year olds into the ringfenced Dedicated Schools Grant, this constitutes a fall in non-ringfenced resources of 27%. Removing local authorities freedom to allocate funding inevitably means greater pressures on other services."
The Guardian also noted that Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Baroness Garden of Frognal had told the House of Lords that  "the two year-old offer is funded with £760 million of new money, as announced in the Autumn Statement. So it is not true to say that it is being funded through cuts to children's centres, which indeed is not what we would wish."
In case of any confusion, the Guardian commented that "miraculously, in the process of switching the cash between accounts it seems the old money marked "early intervention grant" becomes "new money" marked "free nursery care for two year olds".
On the 28th October, the Telegraph ran a very positive piece about the merits of early intervention, citing research and evidence from both the UK and America. But the Telegraph went on to lament the direction of government policy, quoting Allen as saying that “the funding I thought was earmarked for it is being taken away. The plans that I have put forward are being hollowed out.” Frank Field struck a similarly dejected note, saying that “the Prime Minister asked me to write a report on early intervention. My hopes were up when I delivered it several weeks ago. But as far as I can tell, he hasn’t even read it.”
Stephen Twigg
Stephen Twigg MP
At this point, the story gathers even more pace. The leader of Sheffield Council, Julie Dore, is quoted on 1st November as saying that the cuts to the EIG are "reckless" and will undermine early intervention in Sheffield (where, of course, Nick Clegg is an MP). Four days later, Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, accused the government of making "totally contradictory statements" and refusing "to admit to cuts to the early intervention budget." In response, the DFE is reported to have claimed that the EIG "will rise to £2.5bn by 2014/15". By November 7th, the Local Government Chronicle was claiming that "councils' funding for their own early intervention projects is set to plunge by more than £430m over the next two years, according to government figures seen by LGC - much more than originally thought".

So, that's all clear then: the EIG is rising to £2.5bn. Or it is falling by nearly half a billion pounds. Meanwhile, council officers, Children's Centre staff and families with young children are just expected to wait and see what will happen to a whole range of vital early intervention services, which are supported almost across the whole political spectrum. Field and Allen are being sidelined and ignored: it looks like a growing shambles.

Liz Roberts from Nursery World has also pointed me to their two comprehensive news reports covering this story:

Councils face cuts to early intervention funding

Children's Centre funding "top-sliced" to pay for two-year-old nursery places

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