The Early Support programme seeks to improve the quality, consistency and coordination of services for young disabled children and their families. A new report examines its effectiveness.

The Early Support (ES) programme represents the translation into practice of key DfES/DH joint policy guidance on improving multi-professional services and enhancing child and family outcomes for disabled children from birth to three years. The experience of its implementation in England is the focus of an evaluation study of its third phase, which indicates possible benefits and problems for the multi-professional approach envisaged in the Every Child Matters agenda.

From a SENCO’s viewpoint, the particularly relevant sections of the report  are its assessment of the outcomes of ES in terms of: engagement of families of disabled babies and children 0-3 years, their access to services and timeliness of intervention; the impact on children and families; and the impact on professionals.

The report also assesses the extent to which ES has improved inter-agency working between children’s services, both in terms of planning and delivery. All of these are issues with which SENCOs are likely to be concerned in working with colleagues from other agencies in endeavouring to ensure that children with special educational needs have the support they need to achieve the best possible outcomes envisaged in Every Child Matters.

Benefits and problems

Overall, Early Support is judged to be a very successful programme, as measured by positive developments in multi-agency planning and delivery at strategic and operational levels; improvements in the appropriateness and responsiveness of multi-professional practice; and as recognised by parents themselves.

The report concludes that the nature of ES benefit for families varied considerably, with a third of those engaged benefiting from the condition-specific information materials only, without any other form of provision. For others, around half of the number of families recorded benefited from a key worker service within ES.

The extent to which ES should be regarded as a universal and/or targeted provision was a problem. The key struggle lies in ensuring equal and universal access whilst grappling with the realities of different and targeted provision within finite resources. Crucial issues that are largely unresolved in the implementation of ES and differed between different ‘Pathfinder’ projects included:

  • clarity over eligibility criteria
  • the decision-making process about the type of service provision that should be offered to families
  • how transparent these decisions are from families’ perspectives.

Pathfinders demonstrated improvement in multi-agency working and significantly improved practice in the domains of: agencies cooperating to plan, manage and develop service effectively; the coordination of  ongoing support for families; making straightforward and smooth the processes of referral, identification and initial assessment.

Some recurring difficulties continued to undermine enhanced multi-agency working:

  • access to information across agencies
  • incompatible computer systems
  • differences in contractual and human resources arrangements
  • additional workloads resulting from ES involvement.

A key driver for change was the ES philosophy as much as the specifics of ES working practices. In some cases, this enabled Pathfinders to leave behind previous structures of ineffective joint working. In other Pathfinders the shared understanding allowed current effective structures of joint working to be reinforced and enhanced.

There was no overall pattern of agency reluctance to become involved in ES; however, where a particular  professional or agency was absent, the knock-on effects were serious in the view of both professionals and parents. Absentees’ roles were misconstrued, ill-defined and seen to frustrate, for parents, the otherwise beneficial effects of a coordinated approach.

For those parents whose experience of ES included multi-agency assessment/review and key working, there were clear advantages to enhanced inter-agency working through the ES model.

These were: reduced sense of burden resulting from otherwise having to coordinate services themselves; confidence engendered through the routine and predictable ways in which they knew professionals planned together; greater accountability and increased opportunities for parents to become involved in decision making about their child’s future. For these parents the benefits of ES extended to the whole family.

Key working

The implementation or extension of key working was a fundamental component of the majority of ES Pathfinder projects. From professionals’ perspectives, the key worker role was largely valued for its effects in delivering more coordinated, service effective,and family sensitive provision. Difficulties were largely resource-driven and in particular the perceived knock-on effects in terms of workload for non-designated key workers.

From parents’ perspectives, benefits were described in terms of both practicalities and emotional support, with one often being closely related to the other. Difficulties for families in key worker provision were: lack of transparency over who could have one and why; delays in their allocation; lack of coordination in when key workers were introduced and anxiety about withdrawal of key worker service after the child’s third birthday.

Early Support: An Evaluation of Phase 3 of Early Support
Authors: Alys Young, Bogusia Temple, Linda Davies, Gillian Parkinson, Joanna Bolton, Wendy Milborrow, Graeme Hutcheson and Adrian Davis. Copies of the full report (RR798) – priced £4.95 – are available by writing to DfES Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 0DJ.

A research brief summarising the report (RB 798) is online at