The early years of every child's life are crucial to their development. That is why The Children's Society runs a network of children's centres across the country which provide support to families with children up to five years old.
Our Sure Start children's centres and others across England are a key service that provide support for families with young children. Although many of the services they run are open to all families in their local area, they are committed to targeting support at families most in need such as teenage parents, parents with mental health issues and those with children at risk of abuse or neglect.
However, a recent report from The Children's Society, Breaking Barriers, shows that children's centres are battling a catalogue of barriers, preventing them from helping the most disadvantaged families.
Now, more than ever, it is crucial to find ways to reach these families.
Funding for early intervention services has been significantly cut since 2010 - a trend set to continue for the near future. The Early Intervention Grant, which provides funding for these centres, will be halved in real terms between 2010 and 2015, from £3 billion a year down to £1.5 billion. As a result, many children's centres are under extreme pressure.
For these crucial services to be effective, it is vital the government ring-fences funding for them, and makes sure no further cuts are made to early intervention services.
But even in these times of tight budgets, we know more can be done to help children's centres reach those who need them most. This includes making families - particularly those that are disadvantaged and/or isolated - more aware of what they provide and how they can help, and increasing their accessibility.
Lack of awareness is a key barrier to families using this vital support. Our report surveyed families across England, and of the parents we contacted who are not using their local children's centre, 75% said they were unaware of what the centres offered. Four out of 10 said they had never even heard of one.
The report also found that staff in the centres are struggling to identify the disadvantaged families they needed to reach. By introducing a pilot scheme to register births within children's centres, the government could increase awareness of the services available in the centres and staff could meet parents from the start. Local authorities also need to share such important information as live birth data, so that staff in the centres can identify the disadvantaged families they need to target.
Access to the centres is also a significant problem. Some are cut off by main roads making them too busy to cross with children. Others are beyond pram-pushing distance. And for some, the distance means they are too expensive to get too due to the cost of transportation.
It is vital that local authorities review the areas that centres cover, to make sure the families that need them most, have the easiest possible access.
Sure Start children's centres are one of the most pioneering government programmes of the last 20 years. We know from our work up and down the country that they can transform support for children in the early years and their families.They help stop problems from becoming crises further down the line.
But if they are to provide the very best service they can, it is essential central government protects their funding and that local authorities maintain support for these vital early intervention services, to enable them to continue to provide a critical lifeline for families.