THE BLOG

Giving Children the Best Start in Life Needs More Than Schools

07/04/2014 12:53 BST | Updated 06/06/2014 10:59 BST

Ofsted chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said in a speech on Thursday that early years provision is failing the most disadvantaged children and that the education of children from the age of two should be led by schools. But it's an oversimplification to think that schools alone can solve the problem with early years provision.

Sir Michael was right that there is a confusing range of options for parents of young children but children's centres as community hubs for early years are there to make it easy to find support. Action for Children runs over 200 children's centres. They are not just services; they are a conduit for supporting families and enabling children to grow. We know the value of a community resource that brings together education, health and social care to give vulnerable children the best start in life. That is what makes the difference.

To start school ready to learn and achieve, children need to have developed emotionally, socially and physically. Although teachers can play a role, problems at home that affect this can't necessarily be solved in the classroom. By providing a place where children and parents can be supported early when a problem is identified, children's centres are very effective at helping children overcome issues that will affect their education. Four out of five children who attended Action for Children centres last year improved their communication skills.

There is consensus that family and home life are critically important to a child's education. On their own schools are not enough to help parents struggling to improve their skills and environment. Children's centres work with parents on a range of issues including money problems, unemployment and abusive relationships. These can all take a huge toll on children, affecting their development and putting them at a disadvantage in formal education.

Giving vulnerable children the same opportunity that we would expect for any child is central to our concerns and was the main focus of Sir Michael's speech. Services need to reach out to these children and their families; the most vulnerable children are less likely to attend school. Children's centres can do this, but to fulfil their potential they need access to local birth data so they can identify the children in most need. Government has to make this happen.

Children's centres also connect education with health. They can provide direct access to health services, like midwives, antenatal classes and health visitors. Parents can find support for children who have health issues and find out how to look after their child's health in general, for example through classes in providing a healthy diet. They also help to spot the warning signs of neglect and prevent it from getting worse by working with parents to improve their parenting.

Schools and children's centres aren't two exclusive systems; they work best when they fully complement each other. For example, we want the requirement to have a qualified teacher in children's centres reinstated. Helping the most vulnerable children is a daunting and complex task, and there will be disagreements about how to do it. But to move forward we need to keep the child at the centre, build on the progress children's centres have made and use it to make sure all children get the best start in life, healthy and supported at home.