15th September 2015

Not a soft option

We have become familiar with local areas taking greater responsibility for transport and local investment – both the Northern Powerhouse and Cornwall County Council are being supported to do so by the Government. But in his speech about the devolution of power last Friday, the Prime Minister raised in his most explicit way yet, the prospect of revitalising children’s services through local areas taking on greater powers from the centre. As local authority areas develop their proposals for the next phase of agreements, there is now a clearer expectation and encouragement to put children centre stage.

The Prime Minister focused on child protection reforms. Whilst many people have expressed concerns about the risks associated with commissioning child protection services from outside the public sector, there is an undoubted need and potential for reform. Provision for children in care may be an area that is less controversial – collaboration is already in place in many areas and regional plans for adoption are underway.

The merits and scope of the potential to include children’s services in devolution bids is already the subject of keen debate locally but the potential to create regional economic and wellbeing strategies which have the welfare and life chances of children at their heart is of one of a different order.

The link between children’s wellbeing and the economic viability of an area is central to the long term outcomes and aspirations of the population. As such, it is time to put overcoming inequalities and the provision of support to all children to flourish, at the heart of local strategies. If we are to remove the unacceptable levels of poverty that children experience, we must look to early years provision to help to achieve this.

We all know that growing up in poverty has a serious impact on a child’s life but being poor during a child’s first months has a disproportionately negative effect. Evidence shows that this is a time a child’s brain grows and changes rapidly, making young children especially sensitive to environmental influences. International studies show that when a baby’s development falls behind the norm during the first year of life, it is then much more likely to fall even further behind in subsequent years, than to catch up with those who have had a better start. The stark reality is that being poor at both nine months and three years is associated with increased likelihood of poor behavioural, learning and health outcomes at age five. By the age of four, a development gap of more than year and a half can be seen between the most disadvantaged and the most advantaged children.

Being part of a poor family means children are more likely than their peers to face problems with health, educational achievement, emotional wellbeing and life chances and being poor in early life carries even greater odds.

Earlier this summer I published ‘Changing the odds in the early years’ which drew on research and practice in this area.  The report came at the end of a year-long study into local approaches to reducing poverty in the early years.  It found that the local authorities and partners studied were working hard to build positive strategies and new models against a backdrop of reduced budgets but that efforts were often compromised because of growing need. Whilst early intervention was a central ambition for many, the operational pressures and confines of a system at the early stages of reform prevent significant progress been made. Finding new approaches which embrace real reform, backed by funding, could transform the lives of millions of children.

Locally, there were excellent examples of transformational practice. Some children’s centres were providing a wide range of services, tailored to meet children and families’ needs. These included specific parenting programmes, access to health visitors or Family Nurses, alongside initiatives to aid parents to develop skills including healthy eating and cooking, budgeting and skill development, work experience and help to find work or training using links to local Jobcentre Plus and training providers. Other specific services available include seeing a dentist, dietician or physiotherapist, ‘stop smoking’ clinics, support and short-term breaks for children with learning difficulties or disabilities, parenting classes and English classes. Strategies such as locating birth registration services within centres aided their ability to ‘draw in’ families, and connect them to support services.

There is great potential to embed these approaches to improving outcomes by reducing inequalities among children in their early years more widely through the devolution of powers to local councils and regions. Often focused on economic regeneration and transport, local authorities can now develop and put forward proposals to take on enhanced local powers and responsibilities to combine and reshape their finances for children and the services and support they deliver. From the ‘northern powerhouse’ to the seaside towns of the southeast, we need to put support for children to improve outcomes at the heart of regeneration and devolution.

The Government should enhance their challenge with the provision of additional funding as an incentive and catalyst for local action and to provide a crucial financial bridge to allow local areas to transform their early years support in some of the most deprived communities but whether or not this is made available their challenge local authorities should seize the opportunities provided by the local autonomy agenda to increase the focus on reducing child poverty.

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