Government urged to prioritise 'neglected' early help services

A new report calls for adequate Government investment in family support services, as parents across the country highlight a shortage of available and good quality provision.

According to research on family services by the Family and Childcare Trust involving 500 parents, provision is either not available locally, is unaffordable, offers limited places, is on at unsuitable times, or the quality is poor.

Recruited and trained by the Family and Childcare Trust, four groups of parent researchers spoke to parents in Leeds, Lincolnshire, North (Brent) and Central London, to determine what families need and want from family and early years services.

Stay and play type activities were popular among most of the parents. However, in the Brent focus group, one mother said that the activities on offer were not varied enough, and were not very stimulating or educational. Other parents described stay and play services as ‘overcrowded’ and ‘unwelcoming’.

The findings, which are included in a new report, ‘The Future of Family Services, reveal a number of issues with the availability of services, including services not being available locally, on at unsuitable times, that they are unaffordable, have limited places, are not child-friendly, do not offer creche facilities or the quality of the provision is ‘too poor’. Often parents experienced these issues in combination.

Quality was most commonly cited as an issue for breastfeeding support services, where parents complained about receiving sparse or incorrect advice. However, the Brent focus group felt that the quality of playgroups in their area was generally poor. High-quality sessions were limited and only available at certain times, they said. Some parents reported being placed on waiting lists for two months.

Parents across all the focus groups also reported:

  • a shortage of services during the winter;
  • that services are important for social interaction and enable them to develop networks;
  • information online about services is not always up-to-date;
  • commonly finding out about services through friends and family, through printed adverts and via the internet.

Building on the experiences of parents, the Family and Childcare Trust is calling on the Government to publish a ‘comprehensive strategy’ on its approach to family support in the early years, considering the full range of ways that support can be provided to families, including children’s centres.

The Trust says that parents should be included in the development of the strategy, which should include adequate Government investment in ‘crucial’ early help services, with funding earmarked for local authorities.

Ellen Broomé, chief executive of the Family and Childcare Trust, said, ‘Parents have made it clear how valuable early help services are to their families. We need these services to be prioritised to support families and social mobility. The shelving of the Government consultation on the future of children’s centres alongside cuts to local authority budgets have left these services underfunded and without direction.

‘The Government urgently needs a strategy for family services in the early years that supports parents and their children to thrive and strengthen communities.’

The Pre-school Learning Alliance said it shared the concerns raised by the Family and Childcare Trust on the ongoing reduction in family support and early help services.

Chief executive Neil Leitch said, 'We know that children’s centres provide a vital service to both children and parents, and particularly those families from more disadvantaged backgrounds – and yet, over recent years, we’ve seen a continued decline in the number of children’s centres as a direct result of funding cuts.

'Add to this the fact that children’s centre inspections have been on hold for two years now, with no sign of any plans to restart them, and it’s clear that these services are being unacceptably neglected.

'If the Government is serious about improving social mobility, it simply must invest what’s needed – otherwise it is those children and families that most need support who will pay the price.'

Children and families minister Robert Goodwill said, 'We are determined to ensure children get the best start in life. That is why we are investing a record amount in childcare, including an additional £1 billion a year on free childcare offers for children aged between two and four as well as extra support for disadvantaged families through the Early Years Pupil Premium.

'We know that councils are best placed to understand the needs in their area which is why we have given them the freedom to decide how they support young people. Funding for children’s services can be targeted according to need, and it is therefore right that varying amounts are spent on children’s services based on local priorities.'

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