Link child benefit to take-up of free hours, says think-tank

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A new think tank report calls for parents to be denied child benefit if they fail to take advantage of the free hours and enrol their children in early years settings.

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Think tank Bright Blue argues that child benefit should only be available for parents who take up the free entitlement

The penalty would apply to parents of three- and four-year-olds and those with two-year-olds eligible for the free 15 hours of childcare.

The recommendation is one of a number of proposals for Government outlined in the think tank Bright Blue’s new report, which looks at ways to reduce poverty in the UK.

The report, ‘Reducing poverty by promoting diverse social networks for disadvantaged people from ethnic minority groups’, is based upon new empirical evidence that shows having stronger and more diverse relationships reduce the likelihood of an individual living in poverty.

Within it Bright Blue argues that the ‘poorest’ adults and children are often the least likely to participate in Sure Start centres or nurseries, meaning they miss out not only on the important services being offered by settings, but the chance to diversify their social networks, which can lead to increased knowledge.

According to the think tank, children’s centres and nurseries are best placed to build a 'more integrated Britain'.

Other recommendations within the report include:

  • For all Sure Start children’s centres to deliver birth registration and English language classes;
  • Ofsted inspections of children’s centres, nurseries and primary schools to take into account whether the social composition of their governing bodies or advisory boards reflects that of local communities;
  • Individual Sure Start children’s centres to collect standardised, socio-economic demographic data on participating families and receive a financial reward for increasing participation by disadvantaged people from ethnic minority backgrounds, and a financial penalty for failing to do so.

Ryan Shorthouse, author of the report and director of Bright Blue, said, ‘Reducing poverty is not just about people having more money, important as that is. There is now evidence, which shows that having strong and diverse relationships is associated with a reduced likelihood of being in poverty.

‘There are significant and enduring educational and social benefits from children’s participation in high-quality preschool education, especially for those from the most deprived backgrounds. All parents should know that formal childcare, as delivered through the early years entitlement, is primarily an educational rather than a childcare service. Even if parents are, admirably, caring for their young children at home, they should be expected to enrol their children in quality pre-school education for the free hours they are entitled to.

‘Pre-school education is so important that all parents need to recognise that formal education starts way before their child is aged five and the receipt of their child benefit should be conditional on enrolling their children in quality pre-school education through the Early Years Free Entitlement.’

Early years organisations have spoken out against Bright Blue’s proposal to make receipt of child benefit conditional on parents taking up their free childcare place.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said, ‘We are firmly opposed to this proposal. While we would always promote the benefits of quality early years education and childcare, the suggestion that the Government should rely on punitive measures to increase free entitlement take-up is not only ludicrous, but insulting to those families this report claims to be seeking to support, suggesting that they cannot be trusted to decide what is best for their own child.

‘We believe that parents are their child's first educator and should play an integral role in shaping their early learning experiences - including making a decision on whether or not to place their child into a childcare provision. The recommendation to make child benefit conditional on the take-up of a free entitlement place is beyond flawed, and one that Government would be wise to disregard completely.’

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said, ‘We should be educating parents about the benefits to their child’s development and life chances of attending high quality early education – but not punishing them.

‘We need to raise awareness of the benefits to the child, especially the disadvantaged two-year-olds to increase the take-up. Currently 58 per cent of eligible two-year-olds benefit from the funded places so there is still room for improvement.

‘But reducing or taking away their child benefit could harm the whole family, at a time when tax credits are being cut.

‘Ofsted told our members at our recent member events that they would be looking at patterns of non attendance of children at nursery but as a means of supporting a family which may be having problems.’

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