The Government is to offer extra support with a £500 million package to hundreds of thousands of families, but concerns have been raised that it is not enough.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak will announce a range of investments to give children the “best possible start in life”, during Wednesday’s Budget and Spending Review.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said critical support is needed for nurseries, childminders and pre-schools, where there have been thousands of recent closures, and it is “frustrating” that they are not part of the proposals.
He said the Government knows the “existing structure is crumbling”, and Labour called the package a “smokescreen” for the Conservatives’ “failure” to support families in the past.
Mr Sunak said: “I passionately believe that we have a duty to give young families and their children the best possible start in life.
“We know that the first 1,001 days of a child’s life are some of the most important in their development, which is why I’m thrilled that this investment will guarantee that thousands of families across England are given support to lead healthy and happy lives.”
The funding includes around £80 million to create another 75 family hubs in local authorities across England. They are support centres for families to access services in one place.
A further £100 million will go towards supporting the mental health of expectant parents, while £120 million will be invested in other comprehensive family support programmes.
Around 300,000 of the most vulnerable in society will be supported with an extra £200 million to support people through complex issues that could lead to family breakdown.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “Family hubs are a sticking plaster for a fractured childcare and children services landscape.
“This supposed commitment rings hollow after 11 years of Conservative cuts have forced the closure of over 1,000 children’s centres, cutting off the early learning that sets children up for life.
“This has come alongside the Government stripping away early intervention children’s services, allowing problems to escalate into crises.
“This is a smokescreen for the Conservatives’ failure to deliver for families.”
A recent poll revealed parents felt like they were “drowning” and were “isolated” because of a lack of support during the past 18 months.
More than four in five (82%) said they were struggling with at least one of the warning signs that may indicate parental burnout due to Covid-19.
Mr Leitch said nearly 3,000 providers in the sector have closed since the start of the year, and 16,000 in the last six years.
He told BBC Breakfast: “That tells you we have a crumbling infrastructure, so I come back to this point: it’s no good just having a bit-piece approach to this, it needs a revamp.”
He added: “I hope there’s more coming in the Spending Review, but I do question why would you create another infrastructure of early years support when the existing structure is crumbling around you. And Government knows this is the case.
“So it’s a bitter pill to swallow, to see all of this and yet the existing system is ignored.”
Additional investment for children and families is welcome but any suggestion the package will solve the early years crisis in the country is “at best misguided, and at worst deliberately misleading”, according to Mr Leitch.
He said: “So-called ‘free childcare’ schemes in this country have been woefully underfunded for years, giving nurseries, childminders and pre-schools no choice but to increase fees for paid-for hours to remain financially sustainable.
“If Government is truly committed to helping families access the early support, education and childcare services, it must commit to investing in the whole of the early years sector, not just a part of it.”
He urged Mr Sunak to ensure the spending review includes a full, independent review of early entitlement funding and a commitment to investing “what providers need to deliver quality, affordable, sustainable early education and care both now and in the future”.
Imran Hussain of Action for Children said: “This is good news. Giving children the best start in life is vital and family hubs provide lifeline services to do that, supporting parents and helping children develop.
“After years of cuts to these services, we hope this will mark the start of a programme of investment to ensure all children can access high-quality early years services.”
Vicky Nevin of the NSPCC said: “Worryingly, health visiting is missing from this package.
“Health visitors are in a prime position to spot when parents are struggling with their mental health and families need additional support. But the workforce has been drastically cut by around a third since 2015.”
The NSPCC is calling for additional funding to train and recruit 3,000 health visitors so every new parent can access mental health support in their community.