Pandemic puts early years support services out of reach of parents

A new report by Action for Children warns of a growing crisis facing early years services that support families. The findings reveal 4.3 million [i]parents of young children in England have been unable or are struggling to access vital support for their child despite needing help.

Early years services include essential non-childcare programmes to support children’s education and development, child-parent relationships or extra support for parent or child mental health. These services also allow professionals to identify and help families who may be in particular need of early intervention.

More than three quarters of parents who couldn’t access these services – typically offered in children’s centres and family hubs – are worried about the impact on themselves or their child.

Before the onset of the pandemic, many parents reported difficulties accessing family support services, as children’s centres or other services were cut back. Since the onset of the pandemic, more parents, 27% compared to 22% before the pandemic, said services have been completely unavailable within their local community as the covid crisis forced many to close or move online.

The research shows the most common worries from parents about the impact of being unable to access early years support include:

  • child’s social and emotional development (45%)
  • their own mental health and wellbeing (45%)
  • child’s ability to make friends and socialise with other kids (44%)
  • and feelings of family loneliness (42%) and children’s mental health (41%).

Other concerns relate to their child’s ability to share toys with other children (36%), child’s physical development (31%) and their own relationship with their child (26%).

In May, the former Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson said parents should be supported ‘in carrying out the most important job they will ever have’.[iii]

Parents polled recognised the need for support during these vital first years to help give their children the best start in life, with 4 in 5 (79%) wanting greater access to early years help, and 69% believing more investment is needed for all early years services.[iv]

The charity is calling on the government to use October’s Spending Review to give parents a minimum service guarantee of the services they should be able to access to help them give their child the best start in life.

Katie, 30, and her partner Jonathan live in North Devon with their three children, Lily (8), James (5) and Jack, eight months. When James turned one, Katie and Jonathan started to suspect delays in his development and Katie began to feel isolated due to a lack of support from professionals.

“It was very worrying. I could see that he was delayed and behind where other kids his age were. I would take James to see the paediatrician and we would be seen for five minutes and told to come back in a few months.”

James went through several assessments before being formally diagnosed with autism. She says: “I didn’t know anyone who had a child with severe additional needs and I had no idea where I could go for support.”

Eventually Katie she was referred to her local Action for Children centre. “It was absolutely life-changing to be able to take him somewhere that was safe and contained where he could play happily and socialise. We finally had somewhere where James wasn’t different and where we didn’t feel judged. Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one in this situation, so it makes all the difference being able to meet other parents who are going through the same thing.”

In December 2020, Katie gave birth to her son Jack and continues to receive support from the children’s centre.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “Being a parent is the hardest and most important job many people will have.  It’s good we are hearing ministers talk about the family as an institution that is vital to levelling up, but the fact remains that some children are being left behind by a lack of access to crucial early years support.

“Family life has been hugely disrupted since the pandemic hit and today’s report shows vital lifeline services which were already stretched, may be ‘out of reach’ for most parents, leaving them to struggle alone. 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 centres and hubs in every community should be a core part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

“The Government’s manifesto commitment to family hubs is an opportunity to ensure all parents and young children get the support they need to thrive. We urge the Chancellor to take urgent action in next month’s Spending Review to ensure councils can deliver a minimum service guarantee for parents and young children so all children get the best start in life.”

[i] Calculations of equivalent number of parents in the population are based on Opinium’s nationally representative survey of 2,006 UK adults from 16th-19th July 2021, of which 198 lived in England and were parents of children aged 5 and under.

The ONS Mid-Year Population Estimates from June 2020 list 52,890,044 adults in the UK. 198 / 2,006 * 52,890,044 = 5,220,453 parents of 0 to 5s in England.

[ii] Pre-pandemic, 53% of parents said they had been unable to access a service. This rose to 57% since the onset of the pandemic.


[iv] From a question added to Opinium’s omnibus survey of 2,006 adults across the UK, rather than our targeted survey to parents in England. The omnibus reached 221 parents of 0 to 5s.

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