Early years, family hubs and levelling up

Tuesday 19 April 2022
Young boy playing with letter blocks

The government recently revealed the 75 local areas that will benefit from family hubs and Start for Life funding, as announced in the Spending Review.

At Action for Children, we deliver over 80 children’s centres and family hubs across the UK – and hundreds of services that could be incorporated into family hubs. We know how vital these services are in supporting parents to give their children the best start in life.

So we welcome the new investment in family hubs, which includes funding for crucial Start for Life services thanks to Andrea Leadsom’s ongoing leadership. This investment will play a central role in the levelling up mission of improving learning outcomes at age 5.

The investment is also focused in some of the areas most in need of levelling up. In November 2021, we identified 10 areas that would most benefit from levelling up. This was from the perspective of child poverty, school readiness and early intervention spending. We’re pleased to see that all the areas we identified have been selected for family hub funding.

Parenting support

To ensure family hubs contribute as much as possible to levelling up, it’s crucial that parents and children can access the services they need.

We think three services should be available through every family hub. This will help give all children the best start in life.

1) Baby and toddler groups

A recent Petitions Committee inquiry ‘heard compelling evidence on the crucial role of community support and parent and baby groups in supporting new parents’ wellbeing’. We know how important these groups are to families. They can support children’s development, help with parent and child wellbeing, and also enable professionals to identify any family difficulties early.

Our 2021 survey of parents of 0-5s in England found that these types of groups (Stay and Play, messy play, music and movement, etc.) were the most sought-after services among parents, after health visiting and midwifery.

2) Parenting programmes

Parenting programmes are among the most common services delivered through Action for Children’s own children’s centres and family hubs. They were also highly sought-after in our 2021 survey of parents. These services can help parents with skills such as managing children’s behaviour. They include programmes like Triple P, Incredible Years and the Solihull Approach.

3) Digital support

Action for Children’s online support service, Parent Talk, offers parents information, advice and guidance. It also features a one-to-one live chat service with our experienced Parenting Coaches.

In 2020/21, we reached 361,043 people through Parent Talk, including over 10,000 live chats. Although digital support should never replace face-to-face services, it does have a vital role to play in flexibly supporting parents across the country.

Mother and baby in a playgroup smiling and playing on a xylophone

The government's commitments to parenting support

The government’s recent announcements demonstrate it understands the importance of services needed to support 0-5s and their parents. We see this in:

  • its understanding of ‘the importance’ of baby and toddler groups;
  • In the Spending Review commitment of £50m for parenting programmes;
  • In the emphasis on digital support as a vital element of family hubs;
  • In its mission to improve the percentage of 5-year-olds achieving their early learning goals.

Family hubs are an opportunity to join up these aims, and ensure that early years services contribute to the government’s levelling up missions.

Family hub policy

Currently, the most detailed policy outline of family hubs is in the documentation attached to the Family Hub Transformation Fund. The application guidance lists the ‘six core services for the conception to age 2 period’ that make up the ‘Universal Offer’. These are midwifery, health visiting, mental health support, infant feeding support, safeguarding and SEND services.

This is a brilliant start, but there’s potential for this list of core services to be extended. The hub model framework says that ‘0-5 services’ ‘span education, health, social care, Supporting Families and other areas’. More detail on this would have three key benefits:

  1. Helping the government to link family hubs with its levelling up goal around early learning achievements for 5-year-olds.
  2. Helping tackle the existing difficulty in evaluating the effectiveness of services.
  3. Giving parents the clarity and confidence to access the support they need. In our 2021 survey, one of the most common reasons for parents struggling to access services was that it was unclear how to.

The government’s recent response to the Petitions Committee points to the need for stronger policy direction for parenting support. The response highlighted that ‘there is no single responsible body with complete oversight of these [baby and toddler] groups’.

Through family hubs policy, the government has an opportunity to help more families access the parenting support they need. However, despite hubs’ focus on relationships and families, the word ‘parenting’ doesn’t appear in either of the Transformation Fund documents.

How can family hubs help in levelling up?

It’s great to see the Start for Life services specified as part of the core offer for family hubs. We’d like to see this core offer broadened to include parenting support, incorporating:

  • Open-access baby and toddler groups.
  • Parenting programmes for all parents who need them.
  • A national offer of digital parenting support.

This will require close working between departments, backed up by investment that goes beyond the funding announced last year. But it is possible, and a key opportunity for the government as it rolls out family hubs in the 75 new areas.

Parenting support is a gap in family hub policy: this is the perfect time to fill it.

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