Through our work with parents over 25 years, at Daycare Trust we know that access to affordable, flexible, accessible childcare is essential for working parents. The expansion of childcare places and increased financial support for childcare over the last 15 years has made a huge difference to millions of families, in particular to women. But these places will go unused if mothers and fathers don’t know about them.
Since taking office, the coalition government has placed great emphasis on the importance of the early years. It has pledged to extend free early education places to the 40 per cent most disadvantaged two year-olds by the end of the Parliament, in addition to the universal free offer for all three and four year-olds . For these families, most of whom have not previously used a nursery or childminder, access to 15 hours of free care will not only benefit their child, but could help the parents to return to work, study or volunteer. And despite cutting the amount of help available for childcare through Working Tax Credit in April 2010 (an average loss of over £500 per family), the Government has pledged that childcare support in the new Universal Credit will be extended to around 80,000 additional families. Currently, parents must work more than 16 hours per week to receive childcare support – in future this will be available to all working parents.
But these new entitlements will be worthless if parents don’t know about them in order to take them up. Family Information Services – small teams of trained advice staff based in local authorities – are there to help parents find childcare, as well as access other services for families. But recent Daycare Trust research has found that cuts to Family Information Services could undermine these key policy initiatives through a lack of support for parents to find out about their entitlements, which could mean that the poorest and most vulnerable families lose out. We have found widespread cuts to Family Information Services, a low-profile, but essential, service. In addition, we have warned that local authorities may be failing to meet their duties under the Childcare Act 2006, which obliges them to run a service providing information, advice and assistance about childcare, and to provide brokerage for parents who need extra help finding childcare.
Our recent survey of Family Information Services in England and Wales found:
- 76 per cent of local authorities have recent or planned cuts their budget for family information, 62 per cent have cut staffing and 45 per cent have reduced outreach activity.
- Five English local authorities were not offering childcare brokerage service, despite the obligation to do so in regulations.
- 22 local authorities in England have recently merged their Family Information Services into call centres or plan to do so by April. This figure in an under-estimate as we did not receive survey responses from three local authorities where we know that this has already happened.
- Where a merger into a call centre had recently occurred or was planned just three local authorities out of 22 had retained a second tier Family Information Service to deal with more complex enquiries.
- Only two-thirds of FIS managers believed their service was fully compliant with the Childcare Act 2006.
These worrying findings should provide a wake-up call to policy makers in central and local Government that the success of new policy initiatives relies on parents having high quality information, and support to access their entitlements. Our survey shows that where Family Information Services are properly supported they often provide an excellent service. By investing in high quality childcare information and brokerage now we can not only ensure families can access the services they need, but prevent poverty child poverty in the future.