Will the government’s plans deliver the best start in life for every child?
Amidst all of the coverage of the phone hacking scandal this week, one of the most important reports published by the coalition government has failed to gain much attention.
Published on Monday, the Department for Education’s Supporting Families in the Foundation Years report sets out the government’s plans for giving every child the best start in life.
We know that the first few weeks, months and years of a child’s life make all the difference to their future prospects. These critical early years shape not only their school grades but also their achievements well into adulthood.
So of all the numerous government publications produced since the coalition came to power this report really matters.
Will the government deliver?
The key questions are: Will the government’s plans deliver the best start in life for every child, regardless of background? Do the plans allow children the opportunity to fulfil their potential?
One of the most important factors is support for child care and access to good quality universal services for parents and families. The government has retained the commitment of up to 15 hours of free childcare each week for all three- and four-year-olds and has extended this benefit to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds.
It has also given its support to the further development of Sure Start Children’s Centres and is promoting the expansion of evidence-based programmes such as the Family Nurse Partnership, which provides intensive support from early pregnancy until a child is two. Ministers across government are very much encouraging local authorities to prioritise investment in early years provision.
Diminished funds for children's centres
However, the reality is that supporting families in the foundation years is not cheap. It requires substantial investment yet the funds that local authorities have to spend are greatly reduced.
The money allocated in a new ‘early intervention grant’ is 24% less in real terms this year than was initially put aside for equivalent grants for 2010-11. What’s more, this money is not ring fenced, so it could be spent on road repairs instead of on children’s centres.
It is not clear yet how many children’s centres are being closed but in many cases services within them are being cut back and the widespread expectation is that by the end of this financial year there will be fewer children’s centres open than there were at the beginning of the year.
Cuts likely to hurt many families with very young children
For struggling new parents it is not just about access to services. The amount of money they have in their pocket each week makes a real difference to their capacity to parent.
Yet cuts to support for them, including the abolition of the Health in Pregnancy Grant, the baby element of Child Tax Credit and cuts to the Sure Start Maternity Grant are likely to leave many families with new children worse off.
In addition, planned reductions to the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit will undermine the progress made in extending provision of free childcare. These reductions will also make it harder for many parents to make work pay.
Many parents will struggle to give their children the best start
Overall, the loss of financial help will mean many parents will struggle to give their children the best start in life.
The government’s political belief in the importance of what is has termed the foundation years cannot be doubted. Its ambition and commitment are certainly welcome.
What is missing is recognition of the limits of what can be achieved if the overall package of services and financial support to families is limited by wider economic decisions to press ahead with deep public spending cuts.