Look to Home-Start for the key to equalising children’s life chances | Letters

Readers respond to Frank Field MP’s recent letter on intensive home-visiting programmes, and news of £750m cuts in early years provision

I am surprised to read the letter from Frank Field referring to “Intensive home-visiting programmes … being piloted, but only on a relatively small scale” (Letters, 28 September).

What about Home-Start? That is not a small-scale pilot. Last week I attended the 40th anniversary AGM of Home-Start Nottingham. This was the second scheme to be established after the original in Leicester, set up in 1973 by Margaret Harrison, who had used a scholarship to look into the Headstart education programme in the US. She adapted the idea of volunteers doing home visiting, to offer support, guidance and friendship to parents with young children who were not coping for various reasons.

Home-Start grew over the decades to cover many parts of the country and to military families abroad. It is now suffering from drastic cuts in funding, owing to savage budgetary constraints on statutory agencies.

Home-Start contributes to the prevention of problems in families, providing savings to health and social services, and in education. As a relatively economical method of early intervention, using trained volunteers, it provides a safety net for babies, young children and their parents, and must be supported.
Janet Lail

• Frank Field writes: “Mega sums of money have been invested by successive governments in early education and childcare. But the country has yet to demand the investment of equivalent sums in services that focus on parenting and the home.” On the same day is news of £750m cuts (more than a quarter of the total) to local early years provision in the past five years (Children at risk ‘forced to fend for themselves’ after budget cuts, 28 September); this ought to be a national scandal, but is not; it barely registers.

Why is it so difficult to think seriously about the earliest and most critical phase of human development? Our only access to what infants experience is from the enthralling and sometimes disturbing impact they have on us. For many, including those who make policy, it is simply unbearable to contemplate their helplessness, so we switch off.

It is like trying to persuade the majority that climate change is doing us harm; even those who agree forget their assent within minutes. Because these things cannot be fully imagined: neither global warming nor the essentials of infant development can be thought about for long enough to concentrate the public mind.
Dr Sebastian Kraemer
Association for Infant Mental Health (UK)

• Frank Field praises intensive home visiting as the kind of intervention that “holds the key to equalising children’s life chances during the crucial first years of life”.

The 268 local Home-Start charities have for the past 40 years trained and supervised parent volunteers to spend time every week with distressed families at home – and we have accumulated substantial evidence that it really works and is the kind of “deep”, warm, persistent help that parents value. In 2017 there were 16,000 parent volunteers, with 29,000 families visited, with 60,000 young children. But it is still not nearly enough to meet demand.

Here at Home-Start Reading, like most Home-Starts, we no longer have underpinning from local authority long-term funding, but must depend on the kindness of local donors and the overstretched Big Lottery and private trusts. If Labour or any other administration wants to tackle the terrible inequality of life chances for young children, they could do worse than “look local” to fund the expertise and commitment already existing in the voluntary sector.
Jill Lake
Trustee, Home-Start Reading

Frank Field is right about the beneficial impact that home-visiting support can have on parents, and on improving life chances for their children.

Yet this comes in the week that more evidence has emerged of the devastating level of cuts that have been made to early years children’s services in the past five years.

Over the last 45 years, Home-Start has demonstrated the power of support for parents in the home. Currently, Home-Starts work in over 200 communities right across the UK, but if this approach were to be replicated in every community, as Mr Field suggests, it would be a transformative programme for government.
Vivien Waterfield
Deputy CEO, Home-Start UK

• Frank Field MP is spot-on about early intervention being essential to equalise children’s life chances. Home-Start has been right there at the kitchen sink for many years, struggling to survive amid budget cuts, but it provides a blueprint for what can be done. Mothers who volunteer to help other mothers and their very young children started the revolution and would happily take up the challenge of intensive home visiting programmes if long-term backing was assured. It’s not a patch that’s needed but a pathway to the future.
Wendy Dear

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