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Levelling up early years support: children’s centres and family hubs in 2020


19 Nov 2020

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, reflects on how EIF’s new report on planning early childhood services reinforces the urgency of taking action to create the national conditions for local change.

In August, the Education Policy Institute reported that the primary school attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers had grown in 2019 for the first time in 12 years. As well as potentially widening this gap, Covid-19 has placed unprecedented pressures on families. Effective and high-quality delivery of early years support is now more vital than ever.  

In this context, EIF’s new report Planning early childhood services in 2020 is a timely and thorough exploration of the models of early childhood services in local areas across the country. At a time of differing visions of early years provision, the report provides a balanced and thoughtful analysis of the function and purpose of these services, and of key enablers for optimising their effectiveness. 

A central finding of the report relates to the lack of central monitoring and evaluation of approaches to children’s centres and hubs. It highlights the absence of national evaluation of children’s centre approaches, and the suspension of Ofsted inspections which have not been reinstated since 2015. As well as limiting the available evidence on children’s centres and hubs, this reinforces the lack of leadership on and direction for early childhood services within central government that we identified in our 2019 Closed Doors report.  

The report describes how in some local areas, children’s centres are seen as ‘peripheral’ to the core business of the council. The findings make it clear that there is a need to re-centre early years support, at both a national and local level. Early childhood services must no longer be peripheral, but prioritised: within central government thinking, evaluation, inspection and planning. Action for Children has called for a children’s centre outcomes framework, to show ministerial commitment and align centres with government ambitions. Similarly, EIF’s report proposes the development of ‘common metrics’ to support the local measurement of outcomes. 

Another core message is the strong support within local areas for retaining sufficiently resourced open-access services. The report outlines the ‘spectrum of approaches’ taken by different local areas, ranging from mostly universal to mostly targeted support. Action for Children’s 2019 report found that as many children’s centres have moved towards more targeted support, children’s usage of centres fell by almost a fifth between 2014/15 and 2017/18. With diminishing funding forcing thresholds up, the doors to early years support are closing for some families. Local areas in the EIF study talked about how universal services are ‘critical’ to build relationships with families, identify those in need of support, and reach and support the most vulnerable. The experiences of Action for Children’s frontline staff strongly support this view.   

The EIF report outlines a ‘strong practice consensus that greater integration can benefit families’. Action for Children’s frontline staff are clear that families should not have to ‘go looking’ for services: services should be readily available to families, facilitated by a widespread local understanding of the support on offer and how to access it. Whichever agency’s ‘door’ a family enters through, efficient join-up and data-sharing must be in place to ensure that their journey of support is smooth. 

A key recommendation from EIF focuses on creating the conditions for local change. Action for Children’s research earlier this year found that local authority spending on children’s centres has fallen by 64% between 2010/11 and 2018/19. Again, early years support must no longer be ‘peripheral’ within central government’s funding decisions: it must be prioritised. None of the suggested changes can be made without sufficient investment. 

As families and communities face unprecedented challenges, EIF’s report lays out clear steps for the consolidation and improvement of early childhood support across the country. The question now is: will government commit to putting the early years at the heart of its levelling-up agenda, and provide the necessary drive and resource to turn words into action?