Focusing on the foundation years

Posted by Dan Breslin / Friday 28 August 2015 / Children's centres Early intervention

In their first few years, children go through a period of development unlike any other time in their lives. Before age five, children will take big steps in developing their language, social and emotional skills.

This period is so important to a child’s future that it is commonly known as the foundation years. Without getting things right at this stage, some children are left falling behind their peers before they even reach school.

This is why successive governments have focused their efforts on services and programmes aimed at this age group, including children’s centres. Their work with young children had a clearly positive effect on children and parents.

Arguably a victim of their own success, children’s centres have increasingly been seen as excellent way to support older children. In a difficult funding climate, questions are now being asked about where centres should be prioritising resources.

"Without getting things right at this stage, some children are left falling behind their peers before they even reach school."

Focusing on the foundation years briefing

Given how important the foundation years are, we believe that this is where we should be consolidating resources. Children’s centres are already doing the greatest amount of work with babies and younger children and it’s where their interventions can make a significant difference. We are not alone in considering this a sensible approach in challenging times.

To achieve this, we believe any outcomes framework for children’s centres must look at progress on child development by age five. This would give centres a clear steer on where to direct the majority of their work.

Focusing on development during the foundation years depends on more than just focusing resources. It is about giving every child the best start in life. We will need to think about how to make the most of other services working with children’s centres.

A crucial part of this will be health visitors. As a universal service for families, they provide a crucial gateway between services, like children’s centres, and families themselves. Health visitors already work with children’s centres, delivering classes and drop in sessions weekly or fortnightly. However, we can go further and use children’s centres as a permanent base for health visitors.

"We can go further and use children’s centres as a permanent base for health visitors."

Focusing on the foundation years briefing

This would build on the integrated work between early years and health visitors that we already see through the integrated review that all children receive between the ages of two and two and a half. It would mean that families will come into contact with centres when they meet health visitors, where staff can better identify what additional support is needed.

Getting things right for young children means that we can’t overlook the antenatal period. It is an important time for child development in its own right, when parents are already learning and adjusting to big changes in their lives.

This is why we think that children’s centres should be playing a bigger role in the antenatal period. They already provide classes and help signpost parents to other classes, but we want all parents to be making contact with centres before their child is born. Making centres as a hub for antenatal services would be an ideal way to achieve this.

Local authorities face a lot of competing priorities as, increasingly, do children’s centres themselves. But giving all children the best start in life must be at the top of the agenda. Making children’s centres a hub for child development is an ideal way to ensure that such services remain effective, efficient and accessible.

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