Martin Gray is Director of Children’s Services at Stockton-on- Tees Borough Council. Previously he had five years as Head of Children's Commissioning at Gateshead Council


Joining up data to catch vulnerable families before they fall


© Alex Liivet 2017 - Stockton on Tees

Speed is of the essence when it comes to pulling families back from the brink of crisis, says Martin Gray, Director of Children’s Services  at Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council. Here he talks about their work identifying and helping vulnerable families.

Catching vulnerable families before they fall

Imagine the strain a parent might experience if the nursery their 2-year-old attends informs them that the child is no longer making the progress expected for their age – at a time when their eldest has stopped attending school altogether. Meanwhile, a pile of bills comes through the letterbox that can’t be paid because mum has just lost her job.

You can start to see that there is a fine line between a family that is just about coping, and one that is beginning to struggle.

A family such as this may not necessarily have come to the attention of social services, but the warning signs indicate that they are on the edge of vulnerability. With the right help – which might include some home assistance, an Early Years assessment for the toddler and a package of measures to get the older child back into school – their lives could be turned around before they reach crisis point. This approach is a key focus for Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council.

Hidden troubles

The challenge is that families like the one described above can be hard to spot. A family might be getting by without necessarily coming into contact with any local authority provided services. But it only takes one small change in circumstances to plunge the household into crisis – the child who’s not attending school getting involved in crime, for example – so getting help in place for the family early could make a real difference.

In Stockton, we have been looking at new ways to identify families in difficulty. As part of this, we are taking a different approach to the way we use data to help flag up a family at risk before the issues affecting their lives escalate.

Drilling down

Like all local authorities, Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council records and stores information on children and families from a wide range of sources, such as pupil attainment, attendance and exclusions information from schools, notes from youth services, and information from children’s centres and early years settings. In isolation, these different pieces of information don’t tell the whole story in terms of the issues the family is facing.

Extracting the vital clues of vulnerability from the wealth of information we hold on children and families currently means staff manually crosschecking lists and searching through spreadsheets and database entries to bring the key information together and share it with the relevant teams.

The downside is that pulling data together in this way is time-consuming. But technology can open up new possibilities when it comes to mining information to pinpoint families at risk. By using data analytics software, staff can bring information together and join the dots in a way that enables them to see more clearly which families need what help, without adding to workloads. It is then possible to monitor the effectiveness of the support put in place to ensure it is having an impact.

Pinpointing trends

Another key advantage of using a data analytics tool to scrutinise information (we have chosen Capita’s One Analytics), is that patterns of need can be identified that might otherwise have remained hidden.

With the right tools, an authorised member of staff can evaluate the educational progress of looked-after children in the area, for instance, and compare their attainment with that of their peers. By pulling up the relevant data quickly and easily on to one screen, you could even see which schools are most effective at raising the attainment of this group.

It is also possible to highlight geographical hotspots for issues, such as poor school attendance, so that resources can be targeted where they are needed to tackle problems. A quick search of the data being gathered by children’s centres could indicate which groups of parents are not taking up their entitlement to free childcare too. By engaging with these parents directly, local authorities will be in a much stronger position to help ensure that the most vulnerable children benefit from the early years provision they need to get the best start in life.  

One of the challenges for local authorities in joining up data in this way is addressing the confusion that can sometimes exist over when and how information on children and families should be shared. This is covered by the Data Protection Act 1998 and there is also a wealth of guidance available from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Providing a safety net

The lives of vulnerable families can spiral downwards very quickly.

But when local authorities have access to the information they need to spot the warning signs, they are in a much better position to be able to act quickly to identify those families who are starting to struggle and put services in place sooner to get them on back on track.

For more information on One Analytics, click here:





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