We want to care, but fail the young: Eva Lloyd and Don Redding argue for a comprehensive national childcare policy

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The Independent Online
TWO recent developments offer a chance to launch a new debate on how society should respond to its children.

The first national study of community- based services for children*, just published by the Audit Commission, provides a welcome boost for the principle that if society expects families to succeed at parenting, it must offer them substantial and considered support services. In what is nothing short of a new direction for local health and social services, it suggests reducing the over-

emphasis on policing the minority of families deemed to be 'at risk' and introducing a whole new set of primary care services designed to ensure the wellbeing of all children in the community.

This report came hard on the heels of the Government's recently stated intention to expand nursery education to all four-year-olds: the 'Patten initiative', led by an Education Secretary concerned to limit anti-social behaviour by socialising and educating children at an earlier age.

The Audit Commission says that its proposed new range of 'family support' services should be provided through 'family centres' where day care, group work, parenting, health education and child health services, and advice on benefits and housing would be available to all parents who chose to use them, including some referred by social workers.

Save the Children has just published its own report, reviewing its experience of pioneering support services based on family centres in more than 15 poor communities around Britain**. Centres of this sort are required by the 1988 Children Act, but few local authorities have yet established them.

Unfortunately, our experience suggests that the Audit Commission report and John Patten's initiative share one flaw: except for a glancing recommendation right at the end of the Audit Commission report, they continue the debilitating separation between education and social services. At present 'care' services such as local authority nurseries are confined to narrow groups of 'targeted' children. This only serves to stigmatise the children and exclude other families who might benefit. Education services, in contrast, see their task as preparation for schooling and are rarely able to respond to other needs of the family.

In the lives of young children, the needs for care and education are inseparable. Any service for young children should offer a mixture of care with a real chance to play, to socialise and to learn within a supportive environment. Child care is not a time-filler: with skilled staff it can be used to educate children with important early learning messages. The first priority for a national debate must be to consider how care and education can be brought together in the best interests of the child, not how effective such services might eventually be in reducing local crime rates.

The second flaw is that the Audit Commission addresses its strong recommendations to local authorities, but not to the Government itself. The report emphasises that the new family centres should be open to all and provide a universal service - which is all very well, but will carry little weight at the level of national policy and funding unless it is backed from the top.

From its experience, Save the Children has long argued that the Government must give a strong lead if all children are to benefit from early years' services, not just those who are 'targeted' by a local authority, or whose families have enough money to pay the full cost of private nursery or child-minding. Only a national childcare strategy led by central government will meet the State's extensive responsibilities, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to help parents to ensure the health, wellbeing, and full development of all children. Two-and-a-half years after it was ratified by the UK, the Government still has not said how it plans to meet these requirements.

Finally, the term 'family support' remains vague. What support do families need and how should it be organised? Save the Children believes its experience offers some strong indicators.

Parents in the communities where we work face all the pressures and barriers of unemployment, low income, poor housing and limited skills and education. Poverty deprives them of opportunities, isolates them and drains their confidence and self-esteem; it also diminishes the ability of families in the same community to support each other.

Save the Children works on the premise that what parents in such circumstances require is not coercion or lectures on how to get parenting right, but practical services that can help them to overcome the barriers imposed by their environment. Good quality day care for children is the key not only to the full development of the child, but also relieving the pressure on families and providing space and a springboard for a whole range of other family support.

This might include, as the Audit Commission suggests, providing health education and advice, classes in parenting, and advice on housing and benefits. In addition, it can provide a resource for the community as a whole: parents can be intimately involved in running the centre (by sitting on the management committee), choosing what provision they most need - whether that is a toy-lending scheme or a credit union - and supporting each other through group or informal networks.

Some Save the Children centres have gone further. When children have access to day care, their mothers are freed to start learning themselves. Through, initially, education to increase confidence, including if necessary training in language and literacy, these women may go on to vocational study or training, thus breaking out of their isolation and preparing themselves for employment opportunities that may arise.

The most important consideration is that family support cannot be planned from the top down, as a means for social services to 'get into' communities: it should be a catalyst for community development. It should proceed from the provision of good quality day care for children provided flexibly enough to meet families' changing needs: some require full day care, others a creche or playgroup. Above all, these early years' services should be available to all as of right - but used by choice.

*'Seen But Not Heard', Audit Commission.

**'Childcare in the Community' by June Statham, Save the Children, pounds 6.95. Eva Lloyd is a policy officer and Don Redding a journalist for Save the Children, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year.