The penalties are high for parents of disabled children. It is difficult enough for them to find work and when they do, the cost of suitable child care – scarce in itself – can be five times that of conventional care. But, with National Childcare Week starting on 11 June, there are positive signs of change. It may have taken legislation such as the Childcare Act 2006 to force new duties on local authorities, but when the Treasury steps in with a financial package, it would appear that the message is getting through.
It was Gordon Brown’s former chief adviser, economic secretary Ed Balls MP, who last month announced support worth £340m over the next three years, including an extra £35m to fund a child care accessibility project. This will be piloted initially in 10 local authorities to test ways of meeting provision for disabled children, as highlighted in new local authority “sufficiency assessments”.
A Treasury report published to coincide with the announcement also promises to continue to roll out the Early Support Programme this year to cover all disabled children under five. The popular Early Support Programme, set up between the government and the voluntary sector in 2002 and originally piloted for disabled children under three, focuses on joint assessments and co-ordinated working.
But there are doubts that all this will be enough. In its study, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign reports that 90% of families find the cost of child care a major barrier to work, and 60% have been asked to pay a premium “to cover additional support in child care services”. It calculates that parents of children with complex needs may have to pay five times more than other parents for some forms of child care.
Philippa Russell, a disability rights commissioner and senior policy adviser to the National Children’s Bureau, says that, although the availability and quality of child care for disabled children is improving and the Childcare Act offers the promise of more places, “there are still issues about how one pays for additional costs”.
Her solution is to increase the level of tax credits to families with disabled children. She says the present arrangements are too inflexible and the payments too low, particularly for children with severe disabilities. However, the Treasury report commits only to revisiting the backdating rules on tax credits, not to raising their levels.
The London Development Agency (LDA) is devoting a strand of the second phase of its child care affordability programme to a series of pilots to test ways of supporting parents into work or training.
The LDA has also asked the Daycare Trust, as part of its DfES-commissioned Listening to Parents research due to be published this month, to canvass the views of parents of children with special educational needs. A key emphasis in the findings is likely to be the importance of developing child care places according to the needs of the child and their parents, rather than simply having a target number of places.
LDA child care head Denise Burke says pilots such as those in Enfield (see panel, facing page) are intended to ensure that parents with disabled children do not have to pay more for child care.
Eve Stickler, head of early years, child care and community access at Enfield Council, says the emphasis in their pilot is on letting parents choose the setting they want their child to be in, and then providing the support to them and the nursery. She says support for parents in this process is crucial because having a disabled child can often leave them feeling disempowered.
Empowering day care providers is also vital. The Supporting Inclusion in Pre-Schools project in Bromley, Greater London, enables children with complex additional needs and disabilities to attend mainstream settings because they have the support of staff trained in a range of medical competencies, including tube-feeding.
Russell says the spare capacity in private day nurseries may provide a “window of opportunity” for those seeking places for disabled children and help to sustain these settings. She also believes that, although more places have been created for very young disabled children, more needs to be done to meet the requirements of older children, particularly by ensuring that staff running extended schools are trained properly.
For Emma Knights, joint chief executive of the Daycare Trust, the key priorities include subsidising places to boost supply, making base-line disability training compulsory for all child care courses, making information on entitlements more accessible and easier to understand and providing more outreach support work to all families with disabled children.
The test will be to see how far these aims have been realised in 12 months – a suitable way, perhaps, to mark next year’s National Childcare Week.
Implementing the act
The Childcare Act 2006 places a duty on local authorities to provide enough child care for disabled children and to narrow inequalities in outcomes between children.
Councils must also provide information, advice and training to child care providers, and collect data on the number of disabled children accessing child care.
But last year’s assessment of the child care implementation project – a pilot involving 12 local authorities – found that councils were “a long way from both understanding the needs of children with disabilities and providing adequate and appropriate provision”.
Enfield pilot pays child care and provides link worker
Enfield Council has received £879,000 from the London Development Agency for a pilot to help parents with disabled children find suitable child care and provide a link worker with the expertise to meet their specialist needs.
If a parent is going into training or voluntary work the authority will pay all the child care costs for up to three months. If they are going into paid employment, they are expected to pay the normal mainstream costs of a child care place, and the council will pay any additional costs incurred as a result of the child’s disabilities.
The pilot, which aims to create 30 places for disabled children in private nurseries and among childminders, is limited to under-fives, but Janet Leach, a service development manager, wants the LDA to extend it to older children.
She says the council has been promoting the project through adverts in the local press and a video clip shown in a shopping precinct. It has also targeted parents through its disability network and has co-operated with the housing department to establish whether parents who receive housing benefit have disabled children.
The Childcare Implementation Project report
The Every Disabled Child Matters campaign
The Treasury report on supporting families of disabled children
This article appeared in the 7 June issue under the headline “A question of support”