Levelling up for 0-5s: the potential of baby and toddler groups

Sunday 05 November 2023
Group of parents and young children at a baby group. They are surrounded by lots of toys on the floor

As the government develops its family hubs policy, we consider how it could achieve its levelling up objective of improving learning outcomes for 5-year-olds

The government’s levelling up white paper includes a goal to improve 5-year-olds’ achievement in literacy, communication and maths.

At Action for Children, we know that services in the early years play a vital role in supporting children’s learning.

Our 2019 research found an early association between increased children’s centre usage and a decreasing gap in educational outcomes between disadvantaged children and their peers. Further research in 2021 found that among non-childcare early years services, baby and toddler groups were in particularly high demand among parents. These groups could be instrumental in delivering the government’s levelling up ambitions.

How can baby and toddler groups help to level up children’s outcomes?

Action for Children currently delivers over 80 children’s centres and family hubs across the UK, plus over 40 nurseries. Our frontline staff are experts in early years development.

In March-April this year, we surveyed 51 of our staff members working in these services. This is what they told us:

1. Baby and toddler groups support child development and wellbeing

96% of staff felt that baby and toddler groups have a positive effect on child development.

These groups can help parents learn about the importance of play, about how best to play with their children, and give families access to new and varied toys and equipment for play.

Baby and toddler groups might focus on music and movement, or story and rhyme, or feature specific resources such as sand. Through this, they can support the development of physical, literacy, communication and language, and cognitive skills. Interacting with other children of the same age can also benefit children’s personal, social and emotional development.

100% responded that in their experience, these groups have a positive effect on parent and child wellbeing.

Open-access and drop-in groups can help parents socialise with others in the same position. They help tackle isolation and remind parents they’re not alone. Where groups are delivered by experienced early years practitioners, they offer parents an opportunity to ask for information and advice relating to parenting.

Young boy sat at table playing with a plastic box filled with sand and small colourful toys. More children playing in the background

2. The groups are important for outreach

86% of our frontline staff said that baby and toddler groups had enabled them or their service to reach families they think they wouldn’t have otherwise.

The government’s Early Years Healthy Development Review highlighted the importance of universal services in reducing stigma and ensuring all families feel welcome. The current policy framework for family hubs sets out a model “that is focussed on overcoming any stigma associated with accessing services”, ”to proactively engage harder to reach families”. Open-access baby and toddler groups could help meet these ambitions.

3. They enable early intervention

71% of our frontline staff said that baby and toddler groups had enabled the identification of more serious challenges facing families.

We then asked this 71% what challenges they had identified through families attending baby and toddler groups, from a list of options.

The most common answer was the identification of child development needs. This is further evidence of the need for this type of support in meeting the government’s levelling up mission. Baby and toddler groups can allow any development needs to be identified and met early, giving children a better chance of being ready for school by age 5.

The opportunity for families to attend groups in their community means they have the opportunities to be in an environment where they can openly express themselves and the needs of their family in a safe and secure environment. […] All families have a need to access support and groups are the best way to get these families through the door to be able to offer the support.

Action for Children staff member

4. Provision across the country is patchy

We asked staff whether the availability of baby and toddler groups in their local areas had grown, fallen, or stayed the same in the years before the pandemic. A third of staff (33%) told us that the availability of groups had fallen. 25% of staff weren’t sure and 24% felt that availability had stayed the same. Only 18% said that availability had grown.

Clearly, provision of these groups is unstable across the country. This is supported by our 2021 survey, which found that parents had different levels of access to early years services depending on where they lived. The government’s planned rollout of family hubs has the potential to address this.

What should the government do?

In its current form, the government’s family hub policy framework requires hubs to include six ‘Start for Life’ services. This core service offer should be expanded to include parenting support, including open-access baby and toddler groups, as well as parenting programmes for all parents who need them.

This must be supported by thorough and consistent data collection and outcome measurement, as well as the necessary funding to allow all families who want these services to be able to access them.

Our findings show that baby and toddler groups have the potential to help the government meet a range of its ambitions: from family hub plans and implementing the Early Years Healthy Development Review and the Care Review, to closing the attainment gap and levelling up.

Back in 2021, the government acknowledged the importance of baby and toddler groups. Now is the time to realise their full potential.

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