A Lament for Universal Approaches in the Early Years

By Anita Soni and Anjam Sultana

World Children’s Day was established by the United Nations in 1954, with the aim of promoting the welfare of children around the world. To mark this day we are considering how children’s welfare in England has been affected by the reduction of universal services for children and their families. Last month, the Children’s Commissioner provided evidence of the impact of such cuts in her report, ‘A Crying Shame’. This report highlights that 30,000 children aged 5 years and under, are living in high risk households but are not on child protection plans. Furthermore, the report suggests that 14,000 babies are growing up in households where there are parental mental health difficulties, domestic violence and substance abuse and that these children are not recognised as ‘children in need’.

One causality of the recent budget cuts has been the reduction in the number of Children’s Centres. A key initiative of the 1994-2010 Labour government, Children’s Centres aimed to bring together services for families and offered universal support. They also enabled access to more specialist support, if required. Research by the University of Oxford found a significant number of Centres have closed since 2009 and where Centres remain open, hours and services have been reduced. There have been fewer closures in disadvantaged areas and this is due to a narrowing of focus on targeted, rather than universal support.

This is despite research from the University of Nottingham that suggests that universal approaches can be more effective than targeted services, as targeted support can alienate families. The research explored how mothers in a small town in the East Midlands, use and experience resources offered to support their children’s literacy development. The study found mothers are less likely to engage with, or use services, which label them as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘deficient’ or where they feel that they are being told how to raise their child.

Alongside the shift towards more targeted services, there has been a push for children to enter formalised education earlier, as schools are being encouraged to open provision for younger children. This reinforces the idea that professionals know best how to promote children’s development. In contrast, where mothers use classes, offering activities which encourage interaction between mother and child, parents are more likely to feel empowered. They are more likely continued these activities with children at home, once they had started at preschool.

Such research illustrates the value of universal non-targeted approaches where the child, within the family unit, is the focus. Children Centres were once a site for such approaches but increasingly, services have been reduced to specialist and targeted support. Even here, there are not enough resources, as highlighted in ‘A Crying Shame’. Targeted resources can label children and their families as less able to cope and families may therefore be reluctant to use these resources. We suggest that it is a better investment for the future to develop universal approaches such as Children Centres. It is indeed a crying shame!

Anita Soni is a tutor on the initial training course for educational psychologists at the University of Birmingham

Anjam Sultana works as an educational psychologist for Dudley and is an honorary tutor on the initial training course for educational psychologists at the University of Birmingham

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