Andrea Leadsom and Frank Field: Registering births in children’s centres will boost support for struggling families

11 Nov

Andrea Leadsom is a former Business Secretary, and is MP for South Northamptonshire. Lord Field of Birkenhead is a former Labour MP.

Frank is one of a small number of Labour MPs, and now a life peer, who is admired and respected as much on Conservative benches as he is on Labour benches for his long contribution to social justice. Andrea has for more than 20 years been involved with early years campaigning, and is currently chairing an Early Years Healthy Development review for the Government.

We first worked together in 2013 on the children and families bill where we co-signed an amendment calling for birth registration to take place in children’s centres.

Separately, we had both seen through our work with early years practitioners how difficult it was to engage with some of the neediest families when they have a baby – registering the birth in a children’s centre would provide a unique opportunity for family practitioners to meet parents, carers, and other children in that family, and to showcase the support that is available.

Birth registrations are most often carried out in the local registry office, often at a town hall. If the father is not married to the mother, then he should be present at the registration if he wants his name on the birth certificate. Often, because Mum is dealing with the new baby, the other partner will go alone to register the birth.

Back in 2013, the APPG on Sure Start launched a year-long review into best practice in children’s services. Our report showed a very mixed picture: some of the best children’s centres were those focussed on outreach to the neediest families, rather than expecting new parents to find their own way at a stressful time.

What was totally clear from talking to new parents is that they need to be told what help is available – too many have no idea where to go for help. Vitally, they need support services to be joined up. If you are depressed, or facing domestic violence, or worried about your baby, the last thing you need is to be passed from one service to another, each time having to start and again and explain your problems.

At the time, we identified what we thought would be a ‘laser intervention’ – one that was totally simple, cheap to implement, and could provide a massive improvement for new families. Birth registration in children’s centres would mean the family could be invited along together, whilst there they could meet the staff, start to understand where to go for help, and meet other new parents.

It would also allow the children’s centre staff to assess who is likely to need the outreach support. Do the family seem healthy and well fed? Are parents in work? Do they speak English? Do they appear happy?

Identifying the so called ‘hard to reach’ families early could have a hugely positive impact on giving every baby the best start in life, and in turn that could transform the happiness and wellbeing of our nation’s families. It is during the critical period from conception to the age of two that the building blocks of lifelong emotional and physical health are laid down, and right now we are missing the chance to support strong early foundations.

At our instigation, the Department of Education at the time agreed to carry out a review of where birth registration currently takes place in children’s centres, and how effective the location is in engaging with families.

The Benchill Children’s Centre in Manchester was one example of best practice for birth registrations included in this APPG report. By offering this service, its ‘re-engagement rate’ with new families increased to 87.5 per cent. Once a week, they would register births, inviting families and chatting with them to find out how they were doing with their new baby. As a result of this qualitative look at the family, the parents could raise questions and issues directly with professional staff, who in turn could prioritise which families need support.

As part of our research, the APPG invited the head of the registrars service to talk to us. He made clear that although it would be perfectly possible to carry out registration of births in children’s centres, it would mean an impact on his staff timetabling so he would not consider such a change unless they were required by government to do it.

There is no doubt this decision should be reviewed. In the Early Years Healthy Development Review that Andrea is chairing and Frank is supporting as a member of the Parliamentary Advisory Group, we want to promote this idea as one whose time has come. It would be relatively easy for a registrar to take their laptop into the children’s centre, and for families as a whole to be invited in to celebrate the new arrival, and register its birth. But importantly, those new parents could be shown the services on offer in the centre and the staff could identify those who may be struggling.

This new approach could play a valuable role in delivering a new vision for the critical first 1001 days from conception to the age of two, with a joined-up service focused on the baby and the family to ensure that every baby gets the best start in life.

Frank Young: Educational Long Covid. Why the collapse of schooling over lockdown will haunt the poor for years to come.

3 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

If the Marcus Rashford affair has taught us anything, it is that the Government is in urgent need of a poverty strategy to plug the hole in thinking when emergency measures come in.

Until recently, being Education Secretary was the Cabinet job everyone wanted, and for good reason. Number crunchers at the Department for Work & Pensions worked out some years ago that, for a poor child, failing at school was the number one predictor of staying poor in adult life. It’s as simple as that.

Well before state schools were closed down last spring (with private schools moving almost entirely online), the so-called educational attainment gap persisted as an annual reminder of this particular pathway into future poverty. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly prone to low levels of literacy and numeracy – and this in turn leads to low pay, insecure jobs and unemployment.

If we really want to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, we will need to tackle educational inequalities of outcome, in much the same way that we need to build houses.

More than half a billion school days have been missed since March, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having less contact with their teachers and less work marked than wealthier children. In the first month of lockdown, private school children were twice as likely to take part in daily online lessons as those in state school.

The full impact of school closures on children’s outcomes is not yet known, but the closures are likely to have worsened the attainment gap. The exam fiasco over the summer will have further disrupted education for children at a critical time in their studies. This is a form educational Long Covid that will have an impact on already disadvantaged lives for many years to come.

We seemed to have stopped talking about the ‘root causes’ of disadvantage as we chase our tail to lockdown, bail out and subsidise our way out of the pandemic. Any poverty strategy will need to take a long hard look at where the educational disadvantage starts – and that is in the home. Between the ages of four to 16, a typical British child will spend only 15 per cent of their time at school. Damian Hinds got this when he described family life as the last educational “taboo”.

Home environments marked by multiple transitions, disrupted attachment to a parent and frequent conflict increase the likelihood of children displaying externalising behaviour problems, leading to poor engagement and attainment at school.

The experience of lockdown has only increased made the situation worse. In response to the escalating education crisis, we spend £26 on catch-up schemes for every £1 we spend on reducing conflict within families. That’s an argument for increasing the £1 – not decreasing the £26 that is desperately needed.

Our nursery sector is teetering on the brink following an extended, enforced shutdown. It is too soon to tell how many will shut their doors, unable to make running a nursery work but as ever this will hit the poorest hardest. At just 3 years old, disadvantaged children are almost 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.

Once attainment gaps arise, they are hard to close. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. This is exactly where we need to focus a renewed push to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Schools are receptacles of disadvantage – whether it is a dysfunctional home life or a terrible start in life. We can now predict longer term educational underperformance from the earliest days: when Frank Field looked at this issue he found more than half of children in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment in school at school will remain at the bottom when they take their GCSEs.

As Robert Halfon has said on this website, we need a poverty strategy. The money set aside for catch-up should be rolled into the next spending review to give schools a permanent pot for focused, back-to-basics tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Small is beautiful when it comes to catch up – and we can lock this into our efforts to rebuild from the pandemic. Teachers make the difference, and getting the best teachers into schools with disadvantaged catchments should be a big priority. High-quality teaching is particularly transformative for disadvantaged pupils. Over a school year, these pupils get 1.5 years’ worth of learning with high-quality teachers; they lose half a year’s learning when taught by poorly performing teachers.

Don’t overlook family support, hidden away in the Department for Work & Pensions. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme now has three years of evidence based interventions to stabilise family life. It is much an education issue as it is a poverty issue for the department doleing out welfare payments. We need action now to tackle children going without – but we also need a plan that tackles disadvantage early on.