Durham’s strong early help offer; rebalancing the system

Durham has developed a strong early help and prevention offer. This approach has supported in rebalancing the system, taking pressure out of the social care system with impact being seen sustained outcomes for children and their families and in lower numbers of child in need.

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Durham has developed a strong early help and prevention offer. This approach has supported in rebalancing the system, taking pressure out of the social care system with impact being seen sustained outcomes for children and their families and in lower numbers of child in need. Families that have been supported through this approach have achieved significant and sustained outcomes. There has been an emphasis on building robust relationships with local partners with a common vision on coming together to support and safeguard children and help them thrive.

The challenge

Durham is a large unitary area with significant pockets of high deprivation. There is a need to seek buy in for the early help approach across an extensive system of services and settings. There are lots of different staff in different settings and services that work with children and adults and have quite varied roles and backgrounds. It is important to keep getting messages out about our approach and to ‘always think family’ and work in a whole family way, asking the right questions to ascertain impact of adult behaviours on children and vice versa. Durham strives to ensure timely conversations take place about what support can be offered from the early help system as quickly as possible thus reducing risk of escalating concerns for children.

The solution

 Durham’s Early Help and the Supporting Families programme is not a service but a way of ‘thinking’ and ‘working’ through a collaborative approach between families, communities and services. Durham’s approach means that children and families are at the centre of the early help system.

Durham early years logo showing six graphics of people holding hands

The early help system is made up of 40-50 partners, spanning community support, universal services and acute/targeted support. Governance and partnership arrangements have been a critical foundation for developing the right culture across the range of different services and support. The ethos of providing the right help at the right time, with a focus on support rather than services at the same time considering help from the family network and community before, during and after involvement with families.

Durham has recognised a number of key enablers which have helped them to deliver the practice that best helps children and families achieve good outcomes.

These include:

  1. Strong Partnership and governance arrangements to drive transformation and cultural change required to work in a whole family way.
  2. An agreed set of shared principles:
    1. Early Help is ‘everybody’s business’ and we will intervene at the earliest opportunity at any point in a child’s life
    2. Work together as a strong partnership to deliver an effective local offer of support that is visible and accessible
    3. Adopt a whole-family, outcome focussed approach
    4. Strength-based, shared-practice model across the partnership. Robust use of family networks seek to build family resilience and community resilience. This shared practice model also helps to speak the same language across the system
    5. Children, young people and their families are listened to, practice is focussed on their needs and experiences and influenced by their wishes and feelings
    6. Support children, young people and their families to connect to communities, build networks of support, build resilience and improve their capacity to help themselves
    7. Provide high quality support and interventions that we know work
    8. Services will safeguard and promote the health and wellbeing of children, young people and their families
    9. Shared family outcome framework.
  3. Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Alliance Team- a small team of workers whose role is to help connect local front-line practitioners with local, countywide, regional and national offer of VCS support. They also share case studies and have helped build professional confidence in small local VCS providers.
  4. Place-based approach - Durham is a large geographical county with many areas of high deprivation as well as more affluent and rural localities. Durham recognised the need to work in a place based model to ensure local families have access to tailored local support near to their home.
  5. Locality early help conversations are now well established across all seven localities and provide a forum for multi-agency discussions about children where additional help and support is required to ensure best use of collective resource across the early help system.
  6. Weekly locality based ‘step up and down’ meetings ensuring families received the right help and support in a timely manner as well as ensuring continual support to help families achieve positive outcomes for their children once safeguarding concerns are resolved.

The impact

This approach to early help has had significant impact, outcomes of this programme have resulted in sustained outcomes for 5,733 children and their families between 2015 and 2022. This includes 29,134 individuals supported during this timeframe (13804 adults, 15510 children - of which 36 per cent were under five). There have also been 847 families supported into employment.

In addition, Durham has the lowest numbers of children in need in the North East region, with a rate per 1000 of 337. This is not indicative of Durham’s profile, it is a large unitary county with large pockets of deprivation.

This way of working has led to innovations in pre-birth, those that are under one, supporting solutions for edge of care. For example, the pre-birth intervention team provide intensive support to families where they have had a previous child removed from their care. An early help practitioner, working out of a family hub works in collaboration with the child’s social worker to provide intensive family support during the antenatal and early post-natal period. This joint work helps to provide the support required to help parents make positive changes to enable them to look after their baby safely and contributes to the safe, robust and timely decision making about permanent arrangements for their baby. The family are also supported to access a range of support offered through the family hub and community support.

How is the new approach being sustained?

This approach is being sustained through an emphasis on collaborative working between partners. Durham has introduced a number of initiatives across the partnership, which include:

  • The ‘Durham Way’ induction- available across the partnership.
  • Child and Family Practitioner Toolkit- a credible tool that can be used by any professional.
  • Dedicated Early Help Advisor (EHA) support - the team works across the system to develop and deliver effective early help. This includes support to families and well as training/ mentoring to professionals. Each school/ education setting and partner has a named EHA.
  • Early Help Newsletters - for Education colleagues and Health colleagues which are sent termly and developed with partners to reinforce whole family working practices, share good stories, celebrate success, promote integrated/joint working, promote training, meet the team pages, spotlight articles e.g., importance of engaging with dads/male carers, seasonal articles.
  • The Early Help System Workforce Development Offer.


Martyn Stenton, Deputy Corporate Director, Children and Young People’s Services (e-mail [email protected]).