It's not easy to give children the best start in life, but early support services can help. Diana Hinds reports
Professor Barry Carpenter, chief executive of Sunfield special school and professional development centre in Worcestershire, knows first-hand what it is like to have a child diagnosed with a disability. Two of his four children were born with severe special needs, and one later died.
"Suddenly your child's normalcy is taken away from you," he says. "It felt like going into a fog and out of control. From the time of diagnosis, it was the quality of some of the professionals assigned to us that brought us out of the fog and enabled us to be positive and creative in supporting the development of our child."
One of the chief goals of early intervention is to support families at a time when they are most vulnerable. Through supporting families, early intervention promotes children's development, confidence and coping skills, and it can play an important role in forestalling the emergence of future problems.
"Early intervention specialists can bring some light into the situation,"
says Professor Carpenter. "They can ground you at a time when you feel very free-floating."
In 1996, a European Union study revealed that the UK was the only EU member country not to have a national policy on early intervention. This has meant that early intervention services have been fragmented and uneven, subject to postcode lottery and leaving many families feeling desperate for support.
But recent years have witnessed a growing interest in, and understanding of, early intervention in this country, and government initiatives such as Sure Start and the Early Support programme have begun to make important inroads. Next month, as part of the UK's contribution to its EU Presidency year, Sunfield Professional Development Centre is hosting a two-day European conference on early childhood intervention in Birmingham.
A NATIONAL CENTRE FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD INTERVENTION?
The Government's Sure Start programme aims to give every child the best start in life by bringing together early education, childcare, health and family support. The programme, currently undergoing its first major evaluation, has cost pound;3.1bn since its launch in 2001, and 524 Sure Start local programmes, based in children's centres, now offer a range of early learning, health and family services to 400,000 children living in disadvantaged areas. The Government hopes to expand the scheme to 3,500 Sure Start children's centres, one in every neighbourhood, by 2010.
Early Support is an offshoot of Sure Start, run by the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health, designed to improve services for children with disabilities under the age of three, and their families. The pattern of childhood disability is changing and there are now more children with complex special needs helped by an array of different professionals.
Early Support aims to build more effective and more streamlined relationships between families and professionals, so that families are not constantly making appointments and relating their stories to yet another professional, who may not be aware of the full picture. Special materials, including a Family Service Plan which parents help to complete, have been developed to serve as tools in this process, placing families very much at the centre.
Both programmes have been warmly welcomed by all involved in early intervention, and the Government has made a commitment to roll out Early Support from 2006. But there are concerns that provision is patchy. When Beverly Hughes, the Minister for Children, makes her key-note speech at the November conference, early interventionists hope fervently that she will announce that the Government plans to go ahead with a new National Centre for Early Childhood Intervention.
The charity Mencap recently completed a feasibility study for the Government looking into the possibility of a national centre, which would be a vital source of information for parents and practitioners, and stimulate high-quality training and give evidence-based advice to government and other national bodies.
"The difficulty is that local authorities are commissioning a lot of services without a strong evidence base, which are dependent on the whim of the person commissioning," says Lesley Campbell, national children's officer at Mencap, and a speaker at the Sunfield conference. "A national centre would put the decisions made by local authorities and children's trusts on a sounder footing."
Future funding is also an issue. Now, children's centres and other early intervention services will have to bid for funding from local authorities, and the money will no longer be ring-fenced.
"Local authorities will be determining their own priorities and there are challenges for us in ensuring that the money gets to the proper places,"
says John Ford, director of Early Support. "Funding systems for early intervention in other European countries are more predictable and invariably ring-fenced," says Dr Philippa Russell, a disability rights commissioner, who will address the conference. "As the parent of a disabled son, I know my life would be easier if I were living, for instance, in Brussels."
WORKING WITH FAMILIES: ACE CENTRE IN CHIPPING NORTON
At Sure Start Children's Centres, working with the family is paramount. ACE centre in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, previously an Early Excellence Centre, became a Children's Centre in 2003, one of only a few in a rural location. In addition to running an education authority nursery, a fee-paying day nursery and an after-school club, ACE includes a family centre and drop-in creche.
Sue Clempson, its head, decided to use Sure Start funding to employ a part-time Senco to work across the centre in each of its settings.
"Integration is much easier to talk about than to achieve. We needed a lateral, pedagogic approach - someone who can see links and missing links."
Maureen Donovan proved so successful in this role that this year, in the absence of funding, ACE has done its utmost to find the money to keep her. "Maureen has worked alongside parents in a non-threatening way and has been able to identify pre- problems in some children that could develop into social behaviour problems", says Ms Clempson.
She has set up strategies to support children, linking with parents and training staff. "Because of early intervention and confidence-building for parents and practitioners, she has prevented some children from developing into special needs nursery children."
CONFERENCE INFORMATION: www.sunfield- school.org.ukeciconference.htm, or Rose Welling, tel: 01562 883183.