Levelling up for under 5’s: Low-income families missing out on early years lifeline

Tuesday 23 August 2022
Family playing with letter blocks

Despite the pandemic leaving fewer children school-ready by age 5, over a third of low-income parents are struggling to access essential pre-school child development and parenting support

  • Over a third (35%) of lower income parents with children aged 0-5 struggle to access vital ‘lifeline’ parenting support, according to a new report by UK charity, Action for Children
  • Despite the Government’s ‘levelling up’ target to improve learning outcomes at age 5 [2], low-income parents are 40% more likely to have problems accessing early years support in comparison to high income families
  • As the cost-of-living crisis deepens, top challenges for parents trying to access services included the services not being available for free and the crippling cost of fuel or public transport
  • Action for Children is urging the next Prime Minister to ensure every family has access to key early years services in their local area as a core part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda with sustained investment for parenting support.

A new report by Action for Children warns of a growing crisis facing children under 5 with over one third (35%) of low-income families struggling to access vital child development and parenting support in children’s centres and family hubs across England.

66% of parents surveyed told the charity, they want more high-quality support available to help with their parenting.

With the attainment gap expected to widen even further between disadvantaged children and their peers [3], the research shows that families who could benefit the most from parenting support services were least likely to access them. In fact, low-income parents (35%) were 40% more likely to have problems getting early years support in comparison to the highest income families (25%), further widening the divide.

Concerningly, funding pressures have impacted the provision of early years services over recent years as the main barrier (27%) to accessing support was that the services were simply not available in local areas.

Financial barriers were prevalent for parents polled as the cost-of-living crisis worsens. Parents who weren’t within walking distance of services cited the cost of petrol or public transport as their biggest challenge.

Overall, 42% (2.7 million) parents of children under 5 had either struggled, or had been unable to access at least one parenting support service over the past five years. Nearly a quarter (23%) had been completely unable to access at least one service: equivalent to 1.5 million parents. Black, Asian and minority ethnic parents, younger parents and fathers were also more likely to have faced difficulty accessing services [4].

Early years services, normally found in children’s centres and family hubs, include non-childcare programmes to support children’s education and development, such baby and toddler groups and parenting programmes. These types of services also allow professionals to early identify more serious issues facing families.

Findings show the most common worries from parents about the impact of being unable to access early years support include:

  • Feeling isolated or lonely (41%)
  • Their own mental health and emotional wellbeing (41%)
  • Their own ability to handle difficult behaviour from their child including temper tantrums (37%)
  • Feeling scared, daunted or anxious about issues relating to parenting (35%)
  • Their housing, finance and employment situation (35%)

Nearly a third (32%) of the parents who had accessed parenting help had gone on to access further support, highlighting the crucial role the early years services play to identify and stop problems in their tracks. The report examined the likely number of referrals for further help that did not happen because parents missed out on parenting support, revealing 415,979 parents across England were likely to have missed out on further help[5].

The charity is calling on the new Prime Minister to ensure every family has access to key early years services in their local area as a core part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda with sustained investment for parenting support.

Case study: Emma Vallejo-Mayila, 29, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne lives with her partner Dean and their seven-month-old son Rafael. Emma became pregnant as Covid restrictions were easing so getting support was still a challenge.

Outside of having contact from a midwife when Rafael was first born, Emma spent her pregnancy and first weeks as a mum without any professional support. She said: “I didn’t have any contact from a health visitor, either before or after I had Rafael. I hadn’t had a baby before so I didn’t realise I was supposed to have one.”

After a couple of weeks, Emma was contacted by Healthworks who work in partnership with Action for Children. “I had been having issues breastfeeding Rafael. He was feeding fine at first but started having problems latching. I spoke to the practitioner and she offered me a place at a breastfeeding group. I hadn’t been to anything like that before. I wouldn’t have even known where to look or where to start so it was a relief.

“It didn’t just stop there – it was like a gateway to so much extra support. I found out about all the other groups from baby massage, stay and play and classes for his hand-to-eye coordination and overall development.”

As with many parents, Emma is also juggling raising a child amongst the increasing cost of living. “Having free access to the groups is such a relief. If I had to pay, I wouldn’t have been to access anywhere near the amount of support we’ve received. Once you pay your bills and cover the essentials, you don’t have a lot left over to spend on things like that.”

Rossanna Trudgian, head of campaigns and public affairs at Action for Children, said:

“Every child deserves a chance at having the best start in life, that’s why we’re worried that disadvantaged children are being denied access to the services that allow them to catch up and level up for when they start school.

“We know from our own frontline services that helping families as early as possible is more effective in the long-run so investing in high quality child support and parenting programmes in every community should be a core part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

“We urge the next Prime Minister to take urgent action to deliver a long-term plan for early years services with sustained investment in parenting support to ensure every child gets the foundations they need to thrive.”



For interview requests and more information please contact Emma Marshall on 07875 399995 or email [email protected]

Out of hours: 07802 806 679 / [email protected]


  • Methodology: Through Opinium, Action for Children surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,000 parents of 0 to 5s in England, to find out about their experience of using parenting support in the early years. The survey was undertaken online. Fieldwork took place from in July 2022. The figures are representative of parents of children aged 0-5 in England.
  • In 2021-22, Action for Children supported 671,275 children, young people and parents/carers across the UK, including over 100,000 through our children’s centres and family hubs. We have years of frontline expertise in supporting the youngest children and their families. Our centres and hubs offer a range of services, from one-to-one family support, to support for disabled children, to coordinating multi-agency support, to play therapy, to practical help with issues like housing, managing money, school placements and more.
  • Parenting programmes account for a large part of the support we provide through these services. We also deliver Parent Talk, an innovative online parenting support platform, which features a one-to-one live chat feature with our experienced Parenting Coaches. In 2021-22, Parent Talk supported over 400,000 parents through advice pages and live chats.


[2] See numbered pg46 - supporting metric to mission 5


[4] 40% of Black, Asian and minority ethnic parents compared to 25% of white parents; 44% of parents aged 18-24 compared to 21% aged 35-44; 33% of fathers compared to 22% of mothers.

[5] There are 6,452,585 parents of 0 to 5s in England. In our nat rep survey of 2000 parents of children aged 0-5 in England, 468 (23%) were unable to access support. 468 / 2000 * 6,452,585 (population of parents of children aged 0-5 in England) = 1,509,905 (1.5 million). Of those in our survey who accessed any kind of support, 551 (32%) went on to access further support for another issue. We can estimate that if the 1,509,905 who were unable to access support had been able to, at least 32% of them would have had further support needs identified. 32% of 1,509,905 = 415,979 parents with missed needs.