A NEW REPORT BY ACTION FOR CHILDREN warns of a growing crisis facing children under five, with over one third (35 per cent) of low-income families struggling to access vital child development and parenting support in children’s centres and family hubs across England.

With the attainment gap expected to widen even further between disadvantaged children and their peers, 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 per cent) were 40 per cent more likely to have problems getting early years support in comparison to the highest income families (25 per cent), further widening the divide.

Funding pressures have impacted the provision of early years services over recent years. The main barrier to accessing support was that the services were simply not available in local areas.

Financial barriers were also prevalent for parents polled. Parents who were not within walking distance of services cited the cost of petrol or public transport as their biggest challenge.

Overall, 42 per cent (2.7 million) parents of children under five had either struggled, or had been unable to access at least one parenting support service over the past five years. Nearly a quarter (23 per cent) 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.

Early years services, usually found in children’s centres and family hubs, include non-childcare programmes to support children’s education and development, such as 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 per cent)
  • Their own mental health and emotional wellbeing (41 per cent)
  • Their own ability to handle difficult behaviour from their child including temper tantrums (37 per cent)
  • Feeling scared, daunted or anxious about issues relating to parenting (35 per cent)
  • Their housing, finance and employment situation (35 per cent)

Nearly a third (32 per cent) of the parents who had accessed parenting help had gone on to access further support, highlighting the crucial role the early years services play tin identifying and stopping 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.

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.

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.”

Commenting on the report, Cllr Antoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Effective, high quality early years provision makes a significant difference to young children, helping to break the cycle of disadvantage and improving social mobility while also enabling parents to work.

“While it was good the Government announced funding through the best start and family hubs programme, we are concerned only half of councils will be able to access support through the programme’s funding over the next three years. This means many children and their families may be missing out on crucial support in their early years at a time when greater investment is needed given the challenges experienced during the pandemic.

“It is vital the Government fully funds the early years entitlements, ensuring providers get the support they need while enabling all children to have access to places.”

* Read Parenting services under pressure: unequal access to early years support in England here.

* Sources: Action for Children and Local Government Association