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Liberal Conservative think tank, Bright Blue has published a new report offering alternative policies to cash transfers to help reduce poverty in the UK.
The report calls on the Government to make the receipt of Child Benefit conditional, upon parents of children aged three and four (and two-year-olds in the most deprived areas) using their free childcare places.
Disadvantaged two-year-olds and all three and four-year-olds are offered 15 hours of free early years education a week. Figures published by the Department for Education in January showed that 99 per cent of four-year-olds and 94 per cent of three-year-olds are taking up their free education hours.
The report titled: ‘Reducing poverty by promoting more diverse social networks for disadvantaged people from ethnic minority groups’ is written by director of Bright Blue and former family policy adviser to the Conservative Party, Ryan Shorthouse.
Mr Shorthouse, said: “Reducing poverty is not just about people having more money, important as that is. There is now evidence which shows that having strong and diverse relationships is associated with a reduced likelihood of being in poverty.
“Universal public services such as children’s centres and nurseries are key institutions where people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds can forge relationships with one another. But the poorest adults and children, including those from ethnic minority backgrounds, are often the least likely to participate in these institutions. This means they miss out not only on the important services being offered in these public services, but the chance to diversify their social networks, which can lead to increased knowledge - such as about job opportunities - or skills - such as better English. In actual fact, these local institutions are on the front line of building a more integrated Britain.
“There are significant and enduring educational and social benefits from children’s participation in high-quality pre-school education, especially for those from the most deprived backgrounds. All parents should know that formal childcare, as delivered through the Early Years Free Entitlement, is primarily an educational rather than a childcare service. Even if parents are, admirably, caring for their young children at home, they should be expected to enrol their children in quality preschool education for the free hours they are entitled to from the age of three, and from the age of two for the most deprived parents.”
’Parents need to recognise that formal education starts way before their child is aged five’
In the report, Mr Shorthouse argues Sure Start Children’s Centres, nurseries and primary schools play an important role in improving the integration of people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. While suggesting policies to reduce barriers to participation in public services among disadvantaged ethnic groups, and improve the social mixing of adults and children within children’s centres, nurseries and primary schools.
He continued: “Pre-school education is so important that all parents need to recognise that formal education starts way before their child is aged five and the receipt of their Child Benefit should be conditional on enrolling their children in quality preschool education through the Early Years Free Entitlement.
“The Prime Minister has said that one of his key aims of his final term in office is tackling poverty. To do this, he should develop a relational approach to fighting poverty. In particular, he should seek to strengthen and diversify the social networks of people in poverty.”
The report makes four policy recommendations, these include the receipt of Child Benefit being conditional to all parents who are eligible for the Early Years Free Entitlement, when their child is between the ages of three and four (from aged two in the most deprived areas) is enrolled in pre-school education.
In addition, the report makes a number of recommendations for Sure Start Children’s Centres. These include ensuring they offer birth registrations and English language classes, as well as collecting standardised socio-demographic data on families that participate and receive a financial reward for increasing participation of disadvantaged people or people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Finally the recommendations suggest that Ofsted inspections of Sure Start Children’s Centres, nurseries and primary schools should take into account whether the social composition of their advisory boards and governing bodies reflect local communities.
The Pre-school Learning Alliance has rejected the proposal to make Child Benefit conditional.
Chief executive of the Alliance, Neil Leitch, said: "We are firmly opposed to this proposal. While we would always promote the benefits of quality early years education and childcare, the suggestion that the Government should rely on punitive measures to increase free entitlement take-up is not only ludicrous, but insulting to those families this report claims to be seeking to support, suggesting that they cannot be trusted to decide what is best for their own child.
"We believe that parents are their child's first educator and should play an integral role in shaping their early learning experiences - including making a decision on whether or not to place their child into a childcare provision. The recommendation to make child benefit conditional on the take-up of a free entitlement place is beyond flawed, and one that Government would be wise to disregard completely."
’Parents should be educated on benefits of early education not punished’
The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) also criticised the proposals to prevent parents of young children who don’t attend childcare settings receiving their Child Benefit.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive, commented: “We should be educating parents about the benefits to their child’s development and life chances of attending high quality early education – but not punishing them.
“We need to raise awareness of the benefits to the child, especially the disadvantaged two-year-olds to increase the take-up. Currently 58 per cent of eligible two-year-olds benefit from the funded places so there is still room for improvement.
“But reducing or taking away their child benefit could harm the whole family, at a time when tax credits are being cut.
“Ofsted told our members at our recent member events that they would be looking at patterns of non-attendance of children at nursery but as a means of supporting a family which may be having problems.
“It is also very important for young children to spend quality time with their families as well as attending quality childcare settings.”