Centred approach?

It was a Jesuit who said: “Give me the boy until he is seven,
and I will give you the man.” In this year’s comprehensive spending
review, the government, too, has placed great emphasis on early
years development and services, and put its money where its mouth
is with investment that will more than double the child care budget
by 2006.

The jewel in the crown was the announcement of an integrated budget
for child care, early years learning and Sure Start worth
£1.5bn by 2005-6. This will be managed by a new
inter-departmental unit straddling the Department for Education and
Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions responsible to
newly-appointed minister Cathy Ashton.

It will oversee the creation of at least 250,000 child care places
by 2006, and will fund an expansion of Sure Start to cover more
than 500 programmes that will reach 400,000 young children,
including around one-third of all children under four living in
poverty. It will also fund 50 programmes in rural areas and small
pockets of deprivation that will provide integrated services for
7,500 children.

In addition, the cash will be used to set up children’s centres
bringing child care, family support and health services together
under one roof. It is likely that the children’s centres will work
in much the same way as the early excellence centres already up and
running in 58 sites (see 0-19, July, page 8). The government’s aim
is that an additional 300,000 children and their parents will have
access to these services through local children’s centres by March
2006. Its longer-term aim is to establish a children’s centre in
every one of the 20 per cent most disadvantaged wards in

The reforms have been widely welcomed by organisations concerned
with the welfare of children and families. Martin Barnes, director
of the Child Poverty Action Group, describes them as “an
imaginative package, which helps build the foundations for a
world-beating system of child care”.

The Daycare Trust, which has run a high profile campaign for
children’s centres, welcomes their introduction saying they would
“help create a more family-friendly Britain and support the
government’s drive to improve education and end child poverty”. Its
senior policy officer Megan Pacey says the trust applauds the
government’s decision to bring services together under one roof.
“The key to the centres is that they will offer parents an
integrated service where they can go for one-stop help and advice,”
she says.

However, there is disappointment in some circles that the
government has not taken the opportunity to change the widely
condemned social fund. Nor has it given any assurances about the
future of Quality Protects beyond 2004.

Mary MacLeod is chief executive of the National Family and
Parenting Institute, which called the investment “good news for

She urges the government, however, to make sure that services are
organised and delivered in a way that makes them accessible and not
too prescriptive.

“A real problem for parents is finding out what services are
available locally and how to access them. There is a reluctance
among parents to be told what to do by experts and government and
that has to be mediated in some way. A drop-in centre where people
could get easy non-judgemental access to information would go a
long way to supporting parents without alienating them,” she says.
In its report The Future for Family Services in England and Wales,
published in July, the NFPI calls for “one-stop” information shops
in local communities where parents could access help.

Others have questioned whether there is an over-emphasis on getting
mothers into work as a way of tackling child poverty. Ian
Vallender, director of policy and information at the National
Council for Voluntary Child Care Organisations, was pleased with
the announcements, but wonders whether “the devil may be in the
detail”. He asks: “What will it actually mean in practice, where is
the interface between existing projects and the new provision, and
how much is new money?” He continues: “While we recognise that
getting parents into work is crucial if we are to eradicate child
poverty, we must remember that there will always be some parents
who are unable to work for a variety of reasons. If the new centres
don’t offer family support to these people they will be
marginalised even further.”

His view is echoed by Hilary Land, professor of family policy and
child welfare at the school for policy studies, Bristol University,
who sees more than one problem with the government’s strategy. “Is
the main priority getting mothers to take up paid employment or is
it the welfare of the child?” she asks, citing the employment
status of parents as the determining factor in whether they receive
financial help with child care as a good example of muddled
thinking on the government’s behalf. “How does it help a family
when, if a parent loses their job unexpectedly, they immediately
lose the money to pay for child care, and the child loses its child
care place?”

She is also critical of the fact that parents can only claim help
under the working families tax credit with the cost of formal child
care, saying that levels of child care provision are very different
across the country and many parents use informal care simply
because there is no alternative in their area.

One major obstacle to the government’s plans to boost the number of
child care places is the lack of child care workers. Land warns:
“Unless it tackles the question of staffing it is not going to be
able to deliver the promised number of day care places. Day care is
the poor relation in the career stakes – workers need a career
structure similar to that in parts of Europe with good rates of pay
and training and transferable skills across care, health and
education. If the government did that and addressed the issue of
qualifications and pay, it could become a very attractive career
option,” she says.

Key announcements

  • £1.5bn budget by 2005-6 for early years learning, Sure
    Start and child care to be managed by new inter-departmental
  • Children’s centres to be established in disadvantaged areas to
    offer early years, education, family support and health
  • Free nursery school place by 2004 for all three and four year
  • An extra 250,000 child care places.
  • Expansion of Sure Start to reach 400,000 children.
  • Total spending on education to rise to £58bn by 2006 from
    £45bn in 2002.
  • Children’s Fund increased to £200m a year with an extra
    £25m over three years for parental support and training.


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