There’s more to early years than childcare

Tuesday 21 September 2021
Young boy playing in play centre

No child should be held back because of gaps in the provision of early years services. But our latest report reveals large numbers of parents struggle to access this support

At Action for Children, we know just how important the earliest years of a child’s life are. We’ve been supporting children and families for over 150 years, and work with tens of thousands of 0-5s and their parents through children’s centres and family hubs across the country.

A large proportion of that help is providing essential non-childcare services, such as parenting and family support. These programmes can support children’s development, improve parent and child wellbeing, and help keep families safe.

Despite their vital role, these non-childcare early years services are too often overlooked by policymakers. To better understand the support parents need, we surveyed just over 2,000 parents of 0 to 5s in England, to find out about their experience of using early years services. Four things stood out;

1. Parents need a wide range of early years services

Nearly 3 in 5 parents (59%) said they had used more than five different services.

We were particularly interested in the types of services that parents might want to access in their local area in addition to universal health services. Apart from health visiting and midwifery, the most in-demand services were:

  • Education and development services, including messy play, reading sessions, and speech and language support.
  • Programmes to help support parent-child relationships, including services such as parent and baby groups.
  • General parenting information, advice and guidance.
Most in-demand early years services

The top eight most in-demand early years services (services which the highest proportion of parents have tried to use), not including health visiting and midwifery.

2. For too many parents, these services are beyond reach

Concerningly, large numbers of parents struggle to access early years services.

  • 82% said they had either been unable, or struggled, to access a service.
  • Nearly 3 in 10 (27%) said they had been unable to access more than five early years services.

Parents struggle to use services for a range of reasons, but the most common was that services are not available.

3. Parents are worried about the impact of being unable to access support

Parents know how important accessing help in their child’s earliest years is.

  • Overall, more than three quarters (78%) of parents who had been unable to access a service said they were worried about the impact of that on themselves or their child.
  • This rose to 85% of parents who had not been able to access more than five services.
  • The most common worries were children’s social, emotional and personal development, and parental mental health and emotional wellbeing.

4. The Government has an opportunity to change this

Parents should not be left to struggle alone. All children should get the benefit of the right support in the early years.

The Government’s commitment to family hubs, and to implementing the recommendations of Andrea Leadsom’s Early Years Healthy Development Review, means it has a unique opportunity to ensure all parents and young children get the support they need to thrive.

We know parents want that support:

  • Nearly 4 in 5 (79%) parents said they wanted greater access to support of some kind;
  • 69% of parents of 0 to 5s feel that government should spend more on services for 0 to 5s and their parents.

We’re calling for the government to establish a minimum service guarantee of the early years services families should be able to access in their local area. This should include a universal offer with programmes supporting child development, the parent-child relationship, and parenting skills, as well as health services.

That guarantee needs to be adequately funded, supported by improved information – too many parents find it difficult to know what’s available – and by a consistent outcomes framework for 0 to 5 services.