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Why language matters: what is meant by ‘early help’

Last updated: 22 Aug 2023 Topics: Blog
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From the NSPCC'S Library and Information Service specialists

‘Early help' is care provided at any stage of a child or young person’s life that aims to prevent escalating need or risk and improve children and young people’s outcomes. Essentially, it’s about getting in early to provide support before a problem emerges or escalates.

The importance of helping families early is highlighted in national safeguarding guidance across the UK. However, the term ‘early help’ is most commonly used to describe provision in England.

> Read our page on Early help and early intervention

In a scoping study commissioned by Ofsted and written by Research in Practice, a number of ongoing issues were identified around the provision of early help services in England. Many of these were related to a “lack of shared definitions of what early help is, who it is for and who should deliver it.”1

Fundamentally, the lack of clarity around the meaning of the term ‘early help’ leaves it open to interpretation. This lack of shared understanding is a contributing factor to the variation in the level and type of support provided by different local areas. This impacts the effectiveness of the help professionals are able to offer to children and families in their local area.

What is the difference between ‘early help’ and ‘early intervention’?

One of the key areas of confusion is around what, if anything, differentiates the term ‘early help’ from ‘early intervention’. The Research in Practice report2 found that the two terms are often used interchangeably by practitioners. However, for researchers and policy makers there are some clearer distinctions.

  • ‘Early help’ often covers universal support, such as health visiting or open access youth services.
  • ‘Early intervention’ is generally used to mean additional, targeted support that occurs around a specific issue deemed a concern, but which is not at a high enough threshold or level for a child protection statutory response.3

Why are there different understandings and how does this impact provision of support?

The lack of shared understanding around ‘early help’ and ‘early intervention’ reflects the lack of statutory guidance in England around when these types of support should be made available and what form they should take.

Because requirements for ‘early help’ provision aren’t defined in law, choices around provision and thresholds of support are often left up to local decision makers. Tightening resources available to fund children’s services in England have led to a reduction in investment in non-statutory early help services.4

In some areas, this means that, instead of an approach that supports families and manages problems before they occur, the focus has turned to intervening later down the line when these issues are already impacting a family and have potentially become more complex.

Thinking beyond risk factors

When ‘early help’ and ‘early intervention’ are conflated, it can lead to a risk-focused response, intervening once problems emerge; instead of taking a more holistic, public health centred response focused on prevention.5 This was reflected in National Children Bureau’s rapid review of early help which found that, “early help has become a description of the earliest part of the safeguarding system rather than a focused, preventative tier of support and intervention.”6

While targeted services may be successful in aiding a family in one specific issue, the impact of other deeper-rooted, society-wide issues that may be affecting a family are not always taken into consideration. When the targeted support a family is receiving finishes, these wider challenges are likely to continue to affect them.

Support based around assessment and identification of risks can also bring with it a certain level of stigma, which may deter families from engaging with it.7

> Read more about barriers to engagement

By contrast, services based on a holistic, public health approach can help everyone work together to take early and effective action and prevent risks from appearing in the first place.

An effective preventative response requires a focus on the importance of communities where universal help is accessible to all and where families can work in partnership with professionals. This can help families feel able to engage with services to access the support they need, when they need it. 

A changing system

Issues around provision of and access to early help services were highlighted in the Independent review of children’s social care.8

In response, the Department for Education (DfE) has set out plans to move from ‘early help’ and child in need status to a single source of ‘family help’, which will work alongside and incorporate support from universal, community and specialist services.

> Read the CASPAR briefing on the Government plans to reform children's social care in England

The NSPCC’s approach: Together for Childhood

The NSPCC’s evidence-informed Together for Childhood (TfC) approach brings local partners and families together to help keep children safe.

TfC partnerships recognise the importance of communities and the social context in which abuse occurs. They focus on preventative and collaborative work to help:

  • make the places where children spend time safer
  • adults take action to keep children safe
  • children know what abuse is and where they can get help
  • take early and effective action if problems do emerge. 

Evaluation of the programme will enable continuous learning and improvement.

> Find out more about Together for Childhood


Research in Practice (RiP) (2022) What is early help?: concepts, policy directions and multi-agency perspectives. Manchester: Ofsted. [Accessed 16/08/2023].
Research in Practice (RiP) (2022) What is early help?: concepts, policy directions and multi-agency perspectives. Manchester: Ofsted. [Accessed 16/08/2023].
Local Government Association (LGA) and Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) (2019) Early help resource pack (PDF). London: LGA
Pro Bono Economics (2022) Stopping the spiral (PDF). London: Pro Bono Economics.
Featherstone, B. et al. (2018) Protecting children: a social model. Bristol: Bristol University Press.
National Children’s Bureau (2021) Supporting and strengthening families through provision of early help (PDF). London: National Children’s Bureau.
Frost, N. et al. (2017) Family support. Cambridge: Polity Press.
MacAlister, J. (2022) The independent review of children's social care: final report. [Accessed 16/08/2023].

Key points to take away…

  • ‘Early help’ and ‘early intervention’ are forms of support aimed at improving outcomes for children or preventing escalating need or risk. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, although policy makers and researchers often make a clear distinction between the two.
  • Conflating ‘early help’ and ‘early intervention’ can lead to a risk-focused approach rather than a preventative one.
  • Universal help that is accessible to all, and where families can work in partnership with professionals, can prevent issues from appearing in the first place and help families feel able to engage with services.