More than four in five parents with preschool children have struggled to access vital early years support services – and the coronavirus crisis has made the situation worse, a survey suggests.
The pandemic has put services further “out of reach” of parents as many children’s centres and family hubs were forced to close or move online, according to a report by charity Action for Children.
A survey, of over 2,000 parents of children aged zero to five in England, found that more than three in four (78%) of parents who could not access services are worried about the impact on themselves or their child.
The most common worries of parents include the impact on their child’s social and emotional development, on their own mental health and wellbeing, and on their child’s ability to make friends.
Other concerns include feelings of family loneliness, the impact on their child’s mental health and their ability to share toys with other children.
Since the onset of the pandemic, more parents (27%) said services have been completely unavailable within their local community, compared to parents before the pandemic (22%), according to the report.
Overall, 82% of parents surveyed have been unable or have struggled to access essential early years support – which the charity estimates as being around 4.3 million parents of under-fives in England.
The charity is calling on the Government to use next month’s Spending Review to give parents a “minimum service guarantee” of the services they should be able to access to support their children.
The majority of parents of children aged between 0 and 5 believe more investment is needed for all early years services, the survey suggests.
New mother Taylor Smith, 20, who lives in Malvern, Worcestershire, with her partner James and their four-month-old daughter Ava, found it difficult to access the usual support during lockdown.
Taylor said: “I joined some virtual groups for expectant mums, but it wasn’t the same as the real thing. I had support from my midwife, but I would have to go to any appointments on my own without James.
“When I had Ava, we were still in lockdown so we couldn’t mix with others. I would have liked to have gone to more baby groups to meet other parents and see how they are with their children.
“I’m a first-time mum so sometimes I’m not sure if what I’m doing is right and I really needed somewhere that I could meet others and share experiences.”
She added: “I’m worried that if we go into another lockdown, it will undo the progress Ava has been making.”
Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “It’s good we are hearing ministers talk about the family as an institution that is vital to levelling up, but the fact remains that some children are being left behind by a lack of access to crucial early years support.
“Family life has been hugely disrupted since the pandemic hit and today’s report shows vital lifeline services which were already stretched, may be ‘out of reach’ for most parents, leaving them to struggle alone.
“We know from our own frontline services that helping families as early as possible is more effective in the long-run so investing in high quality centres and hubs in every community should be a core part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.”
Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s shadow minister for children and early years, said: “Working parents are under huge pressure every day as a result of the Conservatives’ failure to deliver high quality, affordable childcare for all.
“Chronic underfunding has seen vital children’s centres disappearing, childcare costs soaring and nearly 3,000 early years providers close during the first half of 2021.
“It’s time for ministers to put the needs of families first and ensure parents can access vital early years services which set children up for life.”