Low-income families missing out on early years lifeline – survey

Major shortcomings identified in the provision of and access to affordable services that can identify serious issues facing families, help parents return to work, and reduce attainment inequalities for disadvantaged children. 

A new report by Action for Children warns of a growing crisis facing children under five, with over one third (35%) of low-income families struggling to access vital child development and parenting support in children’s centres and family hubs across England. Two-thirds of parents surveyed told the charity they want more high-quality support available to help with their parenting.

woman holding girl while learning to walk taken at daytime

Early years services, normally found in children’s centres and family hubs, include non-childcare programmes to support children’s education and development, such as baby and toddler groups and parenting programmes. These types of services also allow professionals to identify earlier more serious issues facing families.

With the attainment gap expected to widen even further between disadvantaged children and their peers, the research shows families who could benefit the most from parenting support services were least likely to access them. In fact, low-income parents were 40% more likely to have problems getting early years support in comparison to the highest income families, further widening the divide.

Concerningly, funding pressures have impacted the provision of early years services over recent years as the main barrier (27%) to accessing support was that the services were simply not available in local areas. Financial barriers were prevalent for parents polled as the cost-of-living crisis worsens. Parents who weren’t within walking distance of services cited the cost of petrol or public transport as their biggest challenge. The survey was carried out for Action for Children by Opinium, using a nationally representative sample of 2,000 parents of children aged 0-5 in England.

Overall, 42% of parents of children under five had either struggled, or had been unable to access at least one parenting support service over the past five years – amounting to 2.7 million when extrapolated across the population. Nearly a quarter (23%) had been completely unable to access at least one service: equivalent to 1.5 million parents. Black, Asian and minority ethnic parents, younger parents and fathers were also more likely to have faced difficulty accessing services.

Findings show the most common worries from parents about the impact of being unable to access early years support include:

1. Feeling isolated or lonely (41%)
2. Their own mental health and emotional wellbeing (41%)
3. Their own ability to handle difficult behaviour from their child including temper tantrums (37%)
4. Feeling scared, daunted or anxious about issues relating to parenting (35%)
5. Their housing, finance and employment situation (35%)

Nearly a third (32%) of the parents who had accessed parenting help had gone on to access further support, highlighting the crucial role the early years services play to identify and stop problems in their tracks. The report examined the likely number of referrals for further help that did not happen because parents missed out on parenting support, revealing 415,979 parents across England were likely to have missed out on further help.

Rossanna Trudgian, Head of Campaigns and Public Affairs at Action for Children, said: ‘Every child deserves a chance at having the best start in life, that’s why we’re worried that disadvantaged children are being denied access to the services that allow them to catch up and level up for when they start school.

‘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 child support and parenting programmes in every community should be a core part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda,’ she continued. ‘We urge the next Prime Minister to take urgent action to deliver a long-term plan for early years services with sustained investment in parenting support to ensure every child gets the foundations they need to thrive.’

Last year, data obtained through a Freedom Of Information request revealed the UK Government knew early years services were underfunded, and this would lead to higher fees for parents.

Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez


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