Long-term funding is needed to ensure family services are not cut, say watchdogs

A support programme for babies and their families in England must have a guaranteed minimum level of long-term funding, a watchdogs’ review has said.

The Start for Life programme offers services including health visits, parenting courses, infant feeding, and speech and language support.

But local authority leaders have reported “multiple challenges” with using short-term funding and have raised concerns they might have to cut much-needed services because of the inability to plan for the longer term, a joint review said.

Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) reviewed how the programme, which had its funding announced in October 2021, is working in six local areas.

Among their recommendations, they said the Government should “commit to a minimum level of long-term funding for this programme nationally”, allowing local areas “to establish services and help to build parents’ trust in Start for Life provision”.

They added: “It would also allow time to gather evidence and ensure that properly trained staff are retained.”

Their review found local area leaders felt short-term funding prevented them from planning provision for longer periods of time and “were concerned that they might have to cut services that families have come to rely on”.

The Government has made £300 million available over three years to establish the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme, covering 75 local authority areas.

The CQC and Ofsted called for the programme to be made available and promoted to all families nationally “to remove any stigma associated with accessing services and to ensure that all babies get the best start in life”.

They said parents did not always know what services were available and that in some areas, family hubs were seen as places for “troubled families”, which the watchdogs said meant opportunities to provide support were sometimes lost.

Acknowledging that the programme is still relatively new, the review found families who accessed Start for Life services through a family hub had a positive experience, with parents saying it helped them with confidence in feeding and with overall outcomes for their children, as well as to improve their own mental health.

The review found more work needs to be done to reach “seldom-heard groups or those who have a disability” to ensure they can access Start for Life services, and that postnatal services are more established than services for expectant parents.

Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director of regulation and social care, said: “The care and support a child receives in the first few years of their life helps them thrive throughout their childhood and beyond.

“Start for Life services offer families vital support to help every child get off to the best possible start.

“I’m very pleased that many families have had a positive experience using these services. I hope this review helps local services continue to improve the support families receive in the first few years of their child’s life.”

Lucy Harte, deputy director for multiagency operations at the CQC, said: “Hearing from families about the value of support they have received is deeply encouraging and a testament to those caring people working in services – the challenge now is to learn from this.”

The review covered services in Northumberland, Sunderland, County Durham, Hull, Torbay and the Isle of Wight.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “As this review sets out, Start for Life services are already having a positive impact on families across the country and offering joined-up support for children in those crucial early years.

“All 75 local authorities in the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme have opened a family hub in their area, creating a welcoming place where families can be connected to a wide range of services through a single point of access.

“We are continuing to invest in the Family Hubs programme, including £300 million across the 75 local authorities to improve outcomes for thousands of babies, children, and families, on top of the £12 million family hubs transformation fund supporting a further 13 local authorities in England.”