Pandemic puts lifeline early years support services further ‘out of reach’ of parents

Tuesday 21 September 2021
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4.3 million parents missing out on or struggling to access essential services including child development and parenting support for under 5’s

  • 82% of parents with children aged 0-5 have been unable or have struggled to access vital ‘lifeline’ early years support, according to a new report by UK charity, Action for Children
  • Covid crisis made access worse [2] with the forced closure of family hubs and children’s centres, with some moving online or over-the-phone
  • More than three quarters of parents (78%) unable to access a service say they are worried about the impact on themselves or their child
  • Worries include impact on their child’s social and emotional development, their own wellbeing, child’s ability to make friends as well as isolation and mental health
  • The Chancellor is urged to use the Spending Review 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 nearly 70% parents of 0-5s wanting more investment in all early years services.

A new report by Action for Children warns of a growing crisis facing early years services that support families. The findings reveal 4.3 million parents of young children in England have been unable or are struggling to access vital support for their child despite needing help. [1]

Early years services include essential non-childcare programmes to support children’s education and development, child-parent relationships or extra support for parent or child mental health. These services also allow professionals to identify and help families who may be in particular need of early intervention.

More than three quarters of parents who couldn’t access these services - typically offered in children’s centres and family hubs - are worried about the impact on themselves or their child.

Before the onset of the pandemic, many parents reported difficulties accessing family support services, as children’s centres or other services were cut back. Since the onset of the pandemic, more parents, 27% compared to 22% before the pandemic, said services have been completely unavailable within their local community as the covid crisis forced many to close or move online.

The research shows the most common worries from parents about the impact of being unable to access early years support include:

  • child’s social and emotional development (45%)
  • their own mental health and wellbeing (45%)
  • child’s ability to make friends and socialise with other kids (44%)
  • and feelings of family loneliness (42%) and children’s mental health (41%).

Other concerns relate to their child’s ability to share toys with other children (36%), child’s physical development (31%) and their own relationship with their child (26%).

In May, the former Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson said parents should be supported ‘in carrying out the most important job they will ever have’. [3]

Parents polled recognised the need for support during these vital first years to help give their children the best start in life, with 4 in 5 (79%) wanting greater access to early years help, and 69% believing more investment is needed for all early years services. [4]

The charity is calling on the government to use October’s Spending Review to give parents a minimum service guarantee of the services they should be able to access to help them give their child the best start in life.

Case study: Katie, 30, and her partner Jonathan live in North Devon with their three children, Lily (8), James (5) and Jack, eight months. When James turned one, Katie and Jonathan started to suspect delays in his development and Katie began to feel isolated due to a lack of support from professionals.

“It was very worrying. I could see that he was delayed and behind where other kids his age were. I would take James to see the paediatrician and we would be seen for five minutes and told to come back in a few months.”

James went through several assessments before being formally diagnosed with autism. She says: “I didn’t know anyone who had a child with severe additional needs and I had no idea where I could go for support.”

Eventually Katie she was referred to her local Action for Children centre. “It was absolutely life-changing to be able to take him somewhere that was safe and contained where he could play happily and socialise. We finally had somewhere where James wasn’t different and where we didn’t feel judged. Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one in this situation, so it makes all the difference being able to meet other parents who are going through the same thing.”

In December 2020, Katie gave birth to her son Jack and continues to receive support from the children’s centre.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “Being a parent is the hardest and most important job many people will have. It’s good we are hearing ministers talk about the family as an institution that is vital to levelling up, but the fact remains that some children are being left behind by a lack of access to crucial early years support.

“Family life has been hugely disrupted since the pandemic hit and today’s report shows vital lifeline services which were already stretched, may be ‘out of reach’ for most parents, leaving them to struggle alone. 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 centres and hubs in every community should be a core part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

“The Government’s manifesto commitment to family hubs is an opportunity to ensure all parents and young children get the support they need to thrive. We urge the Chancellor to take urgent action in next month’s Spending Review to ensure councils can deliver a minimum service guarantee for parents and young children so all children get the best start in life.”



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 just over 2,003 parents of 0 to 5s in England, to find out about their experience of using early years services. The survey was undertaken online. Fieldwork took place from 20th June – 2nd July 2021. The figures are representative of adults across England.
  • We also added some questions to Opinium’s omnibus survey of 2,006 adults across the UK. This included 221 parents of 0 to 5s.
  • In 2020-21, Action for Children supported more than 64,000 people through our children’s centres and family hubs, of whom almost 29,000 were aged 0 to 5.1 The most common targeted interventions we provided to 0 to 5s and their parents during this time were parenting and family support and parenting programmes. These services have a range of positive impacts from supporting children’s development, to helping to keep children safe.
  1. Calculations of equivalent number of parents in the population are based on Opinium’s nationally representative survey of 2,006 UK adults from 16th-19th July 2021, of which 198 lived in England and were parents of children aged 5 and under.
    The ONS Mid-Year Population Estimates from June 2020 list 52,890,044 adults in the UK. 198 / 2,006 * 52,890,044 = 5,220,453 parents of 0 to 5s in England.
  2. Pre-pandemic, 53% of parents said they had been unable to access a service. This rose to 57% since the onset of the pandemic.
  4. From a question added to Opinium’s omnibus survey of 2,006 adults across the UK, rather than our targeted survey to parents in England. The omnibus reached 221 parents of 0 to 5s.