The Children and Families Act 2014 sees changes in the law to encourage growth in the childcare sector, help parents balance work and family life, improve services for vulnerable children, speed up the adoption process and help children with special educational needs and disabilities.
The Act comes into effect from September.
Included within the Act is the measure to allow schools and providers to set up childminder agencies, a move that has been largely criticised by existing childminders and early years organisations.
Another key change is the removal of the legal duty on local authorities to carry out childcare sufficiency assessments, along with the right for nurseries and childminders to request an Ofsted inspection.
Balancing work and family life
Under the new Children and Families Act, mothers, fathers and adopters from April 2015 will have the option of sharing parental leave around their child’s birth or placement.
To help parents better balance their work and home life, the right to request flexible working will also be extended to all employees from 30 June 2014.
Edward Timpson, children and families minister, said, ‘The Children and Families Act is all about reforming services for vulnerable children - reflecting this Government’s deep determination to give every child, whatever their start in life, an equal chance to make the best of themselves.
'Our adoption reforms will help the 6,000 children who need loving homes to be adopted. Our reforms to special educational needs will see a system introduced which is designed around the needs of children and will support them up to the age of 25.
'The act will also make it easier for families to access more flexible childcare, and give young carers’ greater support.'
Special educational needs
Changes to the system for children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) include replacing old statements with a new birth- to-25 education, health and care plan.
Last month, the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), which lobbied to change the wording of the SEN reforms in the Bill, warned that more than one million children with special educational needs could lose their right to mainstream education under the changes.
Commenting on the changes for families with disabled children, Simon Parkinson, board member of Every Disabled Child Matters, said, 'We welcome the Children and Families Bill receiving Royal Assent. The Children and Families Act 2014 is the culmination of over two years work aimed at improving the support system for disabled children and young people and those with SEN.’
‘However, many families are yet to be persuaded that the battles for support will end, and there is undoubtedly more work to be done to ensure that the practice guidance contained in the new Code of Practice is fit for purpose. Nevertheless, we can now start to look forward to finding out how the new system will be translated on the ground and what impact this will have on the lives of those it is meant to support.’
Christine Lenehan, chief executive of the Council for Disabled Children, said, 'The Children and Families Act marks an important step to getting better outcomes for disabled children and young people and with special educational needs.
'We have been pleased to work in partnership with Government to deliver the Act but will be equally pleased to work closely with all partners on the implementation of the Act to ensure it delivers in practice.'
Meanwhile, the Pre-school Learning Alliance has raised concerns that the legislative reforms to special educational needs will create more work for already 'pressurised' early years practitioners.
Its chef executive Neil Leitch stressed the need for the sector to be given as much as time as possible to give adequate preparation for the introduction of the new Special Educational Needs framework in September.
He said, 'It’s vital that the Department for Education (DfE) finalise and publish the Code of Practice, which outlines the requirements for local services, as quickly as possible.
'The Alliance has been preparing ahead for the reforms and are already working closely with early years teams to provide advice and materials; however, time is short.’