18 Feb 2019, Katy Morton
Early Years Family Support Ministerial Group travelling country to examine family services catering for conception to age two
A new cross-Government ministerial group, chaired by the leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom MP, has been working to identify gaps in support and services for families from when a child is conceived up to the age of two.
The group, which comprises ministers from six departments, launched in June last year to review how to improve support for families in the first 1,001 days of a child’s life.
Prime Minister Theresa May asked Ms Leadsom, who has a personal interest in perinatal mental health, to chair the group. Ms Leadsom, who suffered postnatal depression after the birth of her eldest son, chaired parenting psychotherapy charity OXPIP, and founded Parent Infant Partnership UK and the Northamptonshire Parent Infant Partnership – both of which provide psychotherapeutic support for families struggling to bond with their babies.
The ministerial group’s review will draw upon the work of: the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Conception to Age Two, which was set up by Ms Leadsom when she was a backbencher; the Health and Social Care Committee, which has carried out an inquiry into the first 1,001 days; and the Science and Technology and Education Select committees – both of which have published recent reports on the early years.
For its first piece of work, the ministerial group has looked at what services are currently on offer for families during conception to age two across the country, who they are run by, how they are offered and how accessible they are.
Members have visited Longsight and Rusholme Children’s Centres in Manchester and Lambeth Early Action Partnership, a Children’s Centre supported by the National Lottery. The group has also consulted with early years experts and academics including the Children’s Commissioner, the director of the Institute of Health Visiting, a senior midwife and a senior Sure Start director.
Ms Leadsom told Nursery World, ‘We have done a real trawl of what services are currently on offer during the conception to age two period, and this has showed where the gaps are and where programmes are less evidence-based and could be replaced by something better.
‘A key gap, in my view, is the one that the NHS ten-year plan will fill – perinatal mental health. The huge investment in the NHS that we have just made is going to really radically improve the support for perinatal mental health difficulties.
‘We will now look at what our ambitions are – what we would like to see happening in the perinatal period.’
Asked about the decline in Children’s Centres, Ms Leadsom said, ‘I am a big fan of Children’s Centres. Some have done a superb job. We should build on good practice, but I think it is equally as important to look at the local demographic.
‘Through our inter-ministerial group, we will look at what is best practice and provide the support for local authorities to understand the evidence base for what this looks like.
‘Quite often a Children’s Centre might not be offering the services people want and then it’s the case of the chicken and the egg. If centres are not offering the services people want, then they won’t access them, and local authorities may look at how they could better use the money elsewhere. I think you need to clearly set out what best practice looks like, what the evidence is, and support local authorities to actually build that.’
Nursery World sat down with the chair of the inter-ministerial group Andrea Leadsom MP to discuss its work and priorities in more detail.
What funding is there for the group?
‘Across all the departments that are part of the group, there is a huge amount of money. Currently there is a sizeable amount of money going into things like Children’s Centres, health visiting, midwifery. There is also the Troubled Families budget in local government.
‘At the same time, this year we have the Comprehensive Spending Review. Once we have looked at the money that is already being spent on perinatal services, we may put in a cross-departmental bid to fill in any gaps.’
Will you look to tackle the shortage in health visitors and midwives – do you think tackling this will enable those families who need help to come forward?
‘Obviously if you had more midwives and health visitors with a lot more time on their hands, that might help you to pick things up, but actually I think there is a much bigger challenge. I think the issue is with cultural awareness, willingness of parents to speak out and having the service at the end of it.
‘I recall health visitors who have said to me, “I thought there was something wrong with this mum, but I wouldn’t know where to refer her to, or what I could do for her, so it is better not to go there.” We can make improvements with this with the new investment in the NHS.
‘[We need] a new sensitivity that pregnancy isn’t always the best thing on the planet and recognising while almost all parents want to be good parents, the reality is that it comes naturally to parents in the way that we were parented. If you have severe attachment problems stemming back to childhood, if you were neglected or abused as a baby, or if you don’t have the secure emotional health that is needed, then your skills as a parent may be quite lacking.’
How does this group differ from the APPG for Conception to Age Two?
‘Very specifically an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) is a group of backbenchers across the parties and the Commons. You will be aware I set up the APPG when I was a backbencher. The beauty of a cross-ministerial group is that you’ve actually got the policy-makers in the room, so while an APPG report can make recommendations for the Government to respond to, what this is doing is talking to departments themselves to look at what they are doing.’
Early Years Family Support Ministerial Group
Chair – Andrea Leadsom MP, leader of the House of Commons
Elizabeth Truss MP – chief secretary to the Treasury
Justin Tomlinson MP – minister for family support, housing and child maintenance (Department for Work and Pensions)
Nadhim Zahawi MP – minister for children and families (Department for Education)
Jackie Doyle-Price MP – minister for mental health and inequalities (Department of Health and Social Care)
Rishi Sunak MP – minister for local government (Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government)
Victoria Atkins – parliamentary under secretary of state for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability (Home Office)