Does the UK punish families for their poverty? Is the government doing enough to help young children flourish and parents succeed? What will it take to fix a broken system?
Claudia Williams – Reporter
Phil Sansom – Producer
David Taylor – Presenter
Kerry: …so your gas and electric comes out of that, your council tax comes out of that, your water comes out of that…
David Taylor: If we’ve heard any particular theme running throughout this podcast, it’s that while raising a child can be really wonderful, it can also involve real struggles.
Kerry: It’s very difficult…
David Taylor: We heard as much in Episode One, from Kerry in Sheffield.
Kerry: …especially when you’ve got a toddler who goes into a shop, and she wants this, and she wants that, and you’re like, “well, I can’t afford that this week”. It makes you feel like you’re letting them down, but there’s nothing else you can physically do.
David Taylor: And Julian Grenier, the headteacher of Sheringham from Episode Two – he’s no stranger to these kinds of problems because he works in one of London’s poorest areas.
Julian Grenier: …of very high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage, poor health, lots and lots of challenges.
David Taylor: And the government is spending an enormous amount to try and overcome these challenges. But it isn’t necessarily being spent in the right way.
Rukhsana Ahmed: As you know, nurseries are closing left, right, and centre.
David Taylor: The pandemic has put an enormous burden on families…
Sanah Rashid: After COVID, I feel like I just sleep all day, I do nothing. “What’s the purpose of my life?” Like these kinds of questions in my mind!
David Taylor: …and now, inflation is making the cost of living ever higher.
Leah Chikamba: Food, especially for the newborn babies, milk, and nappies, wipes, those are the things that we’ve had quite a lot of parents come to us with.
David Taylor: That’s why in this episode, we’re taking on poverty, inequality, and the state.
What do young children need so that they can flourish? And what do parents need so that they can succeed?
From Tortoise and the Nuffield Foundation, this is the third and final episode of Life, Changing.
Leah Chikamba: …for me?
Claudia Williams, on recording: Yes. Sure.
Leah Chikamba: On visitors?
Claudia Williams, on recording: Okay. Visitors. Sign in…
David Taylor: Now previously in this series our reporter Claudia Williams has visited Sheffield, and then London. Claudia, where are we this time?
Claudia Williams: So this time we are in Manchester, in a suburb called Longsight.
David Taylor: Right. And what are we doing there?
Claudia Williams: So I went to visit Longsight Children’s Centre, which is a facility that supports families with kids under five years old.
And it’s this big building set back from the main road on a leafy street surrounded by red brick houses. And like I said, it’s a pretty big building, because it not only houses the Children’s Centre but Longsight Nursery too. And then there’s also Longsight Primary School right next door.
David Taylor: Really? So all three in one place?
Claudia Williams: Yeah, it’s actually quite common to find things like nurseries and Children’s Centres together. Sheringham, the nursery we visited last week, is also a Children’s Centre as well.
But what’s special about Longsight in particular is that facilities are rarely as integrated as this centre. So in this case, they’re all under one person’s command.
Rukhsana Ahmed: I’m Rukhsana Ahmed and I lead the Longsight Community Primary school. I’m the headteacher. I also lead three Children’s Centres in Manchester, of which one of these is in Longsight. And that’s where we are this morning.
Claudia Williams: Rukhsana really has Longsight in her blood – she was born there, she was brought up there, she was even married here, and now she oversees this whole facility. That’s alongside a woman called Leah Chikamba, who specifically takes charge of the Children’s Centre part.
Leah Chikamba: My name is Leah. I’m the Head of Centre. So I manage the three Children’s Centres in Manchester, Longsight being one of them.
We work in a diverse community. So we have a lot of families from the Asian background, black minority background, and obviously their needs are totally different because of the stigma that goes on around in the community.
Claudia Williams: According to Leah, their aim is to really meet all of those needs, in house, without that stigma being there at all. Which means a pretty broad range of stuff that they actually do.
Leah Chikamba: We offer the services all the way from when someone is pregnant until the child goes to high school. So this is a real family hub, and we’re very proud of having a family hub.
Rukhsana Ahmed: So, I mean we start with antenatal services, we do midwifery services, health visiting services, and then of course a child is registered here as well as a birth birth registration.
And then we start at nursery. Now most school nurseries start at three. Our nursery starts at six months, and they come straight through our nurseries and they can go straight to our school.
So as a journey for parents, it’s really a one-stop shop.
Claudia Williams, on recording: It’s quite overwhelming the amount that of stuff you do, it’s amazing.
David Taylor: We’d better take a moment to decode what these concepts and services actually are. So let’s welcome back our returning expert guest, Carey Oppenheim from the Nuffield Foundation. It’s great to have you here!
Why don’t we start with Children’s Centres – what are they?
Carey Oppenheim: So Children’s Centres began as Sure Start local programmes in 1998, and they were really based on international evidence about this very important phase of life, from pre-birth to the age of four.
And the aim was to create really an integrated experience of services for those families. And it began in poor neighbourhoods.
And the idea was very clear: that there was open access, so no matter what your circumstances are, if you’re in the local neighbourhood you can access it. But because they were in poorer neighbourhoods, it meant that it was particularly of benefit to disadvantaged children.
So those Sure Start local programmes were then extended into Children’s Centres, and the services they offer vary by area.
David Taylor: And was there actually research to show that Sure Start changed the success of early childhood?
Carey Oppenheim: Yes, yes. So we can see long term impacts of a reduction in the number of children who are going into hospital, into their teenage years, and with bigger benefits in disadvantaged areas. So less hospitalisations.
And the research has found that that saved up to a third of the up front costs of Sure Start. So a real benefit.
David Taylor: And Carey, are Children’s Centres the main form of government support for childcare, or are there others we should be talking about?
Carey Oppenheim: Children’s Centres are part of the things that are on offer for young children. They’re funded through the local authority. But they’ve become a much smaller part of what’s on offer.
And we’ve seen some new initiatives just coming out from government: one which is called Best Start For Children, it’s in its very early days, and what that’s trying to do is join up services from the antenatal stage to the age of two. And we’ve also seen funding for 75 local authorities to create Family Hubs.
Claudia Williams: We just heard Leah from Longsight call their centre a family hub, but I think with a different context?
Carey Oppenheim: Yes, so she talked about their Children’s Centre being a family hub because Manchester has taken this very strong whole family approach.
Family Hubs, in the sense of the new initiative that the government has announced, is not that different: it’s really a Children’s Centre but available for children of all ages, with greater emphasis on the family part.
David Taylor: It feels like there’s been a bit of progress, and then a bit of dismantling, and then a bit of reinventing the wheel?
Carey Oppenheim: I think that’s a very good description of what’s happened. So we had a massive investment from 1998-2010, then we had the consequences of the financial crash and then we had austerity.
And the two big areas where there’s been big retrenchment is funding for local authorities – and that’s fed into things like Sure Start and Children’s Centres – and the other area is spending on welfare and social security benefits, particularly when it comes to families with children.
That obviously has very important consequences for how families… the kinds of pressures families are experiencing.
Claudia Williams: In Manchester I think they’re really trying to respond to those pressures, with this focus on the whole family. And at Longsight, Rukhsana said they’re trying to support families over the long term, even when the kids are older.
Rukhsana Ahmed: For example: a new family comes in, they’ve got children aged one and two, they’ve got children aged six, and the outreach worker will happily support their application to our school and work with us as a school to make sure that that’s done correctly, and also get the child into nursery if that’s necessary, and also get them access to benefits, get them access to housing, get them access to doctors and dentists, et cetera.
The parent isn’t telling their story several times, they’re having a genuine key worker who finishes when the job is done.
Claudia Williams: What that actually looks like in practice is really interesting. And Rukhsana and Leah took me around the Centre to have a look.
Claudia Williams, on recording: So we are… what’s this area called? So this is Ladybird section?
Leah Chikamba: So this section is where we have all our services. So we have studios, we call them studios, and in each studio we have something different happening.
So in one of the studios, we’ve got the midwife, another studio is our training room, and then we also have a creche room. So the parents who are doing a course, the children are next door where the creche is.
Claudia Williams: This proximity between the parents and kids is a really big selling point in Longsight.
In our last episode, Carey, you mentioned how low-income families can get 15 hours’ free childcare a week for 2-year-olds, but that a lot of people don’t actually use that free childcare, they don’t take it up. And often that’s because they don’t want to leave their children alone when they’re so young.
So at Longsight they have this programme called Stay and Play. And that basically means the parents can stick around at nursery while the kids are playing, and they don’t need to just drop them off and leave. And the hope is that it encourages parents to use the hours available in a way that they feel comfortable with.
Carey Oppenheim: This is a really important point because there’s been a big drop in the takeup of that free childcare for two year olds since COVID. This is exactly the way we should be working. It’s sort of working alongside the family to build that trust.
Claudia Williams: And I think one of the most important things that Longsight do, what they prioritise, is providing facilities that really suit and serve the specific families that they work with.
And these include ESOL classes – ESOL stands for ‘English for Speakers of Other Languages’ – and that’s one of the most important things that they think they provide for these parents.
Rukhsana Ahmed: So you can see in there, there’s parents doing some courses in there.
Many Children’s Centres do deliver ESOL classes, but often they have to have some level of English in order to access it.
And what we do is: you don’t have to speak English at all. And you can come in and we will teach you the very basics of English, just to get you from here to the library, here to the market, get on a bus…
Claudia Williams: This all means that the Children’s Centre is catering to both parents and children. And you can very literally see that all over the walls: they’re full of these colourful displays, each with a different theme.
Leah Chikamba: Everything you are seeing here is information that we’re trying to give out to the parents. So for example here, we’ve got a child’s T-shirt that to a parent, it might look like it’s dirty, but actually this child, when they come to nursery… parents might think they’re just playing, but they’re learning.
Claudia Williams, on recording: I love this. This is so good. So I’m just gonna describe it slightly, but there’s a T-shirt attached to the wall. So it’s like a little polo neck and it’s got loads of different things on it.
And where there’s a food stain, it has an arrow that says: “this splodge is part of my lunch. I’m trying so hard to use a knife and fork correctly when I eat.”
And then there’s another one that says: “This black mark was made with a pen. I’m trying so hard to develop my writing and drawing skills.”
And at the top, there’s an explanation that says, “I’m sorry that my clothes got dirty today, but it helps to show you what I have been learning.”
I love it!
Leah Chikamba: Yeah. So this is what I was talking about. They are not shocked and horrified because we have informed them. They know that this is what it’s all about.
Rukhsana Ahmed: And for the first time, they’ll say, “oh, what happened there?” But surprisingly parents get very used to the fact that their children will come back, up to here, wet.
Claudia Williams: So the parents get this support in the form of courses, and they also have continuous support with the Centre as their kids get older. Loads of Children’s Centres around the country do similar things.
And it’s no surprise, then, that the parents often develop really strong bonds to these places.
Sanah Rashid: My name is Sanah Rashid. I’m the mom of three kids, and I’m doing volunteer work as well.
Claudia Williams: Just like Lucina who we heard from last week at Sheringham nursery, Sanah enjoyed her time at Longsight so much that she decided to help out.
Claudia Williams, on recording: So you’re, you’ve got kids who are here, but you are also volunteering to work here yourself?
Sanah Rashid: Yes.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Can you tell me about your kids?
Sanah Rashid: Yeah. I have three different aged kids, twelve years, eight, and the youngest one is four.
Claudia Williams, on recording: And all of your kids have come here.
Sanah Rashid: Yes.
Claudia Williams, on recording: And you’ve come here as well!
Sanah Rashid: Yeah, of course, of course.
Claudia Williams, on recording: So this is quite a big part of your life, this place!
Sanah Rashid: Yeah. This is a big part. I think most of the staff members know me as well, because I’m coming regularly here.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Must be so nice to be able to drop them off somewhere, and know that they’re gonna have a good time and not have to worry about them.
Sanah Rashid: No, never, never, we never think about that because my kids I know are in safe hands. I know, I am a hundred per cent sure I’m the mom and they are a second mom! They are in safe hands because the staff is really, really friendly. And I think the kids settle really quickly.
Claudia Williams: Sanah is friendly, she’s open, and you can see why she’d be really good with kids. And this link to Longsight – the friends she’s made there, the people she’s met – they became a bit of a lifeline for her during the pandemic.
And Sanah was really frank about how difficult things have been for her.
Sanah Rashid: I think the first few days we feel it’s a holiday, and we all, I think we are okay. But after, they have a really bad impact for me, because I feel the stress as well, because all day at home, we didn’t go to school, we don’t go to jobs. We don’t have nothing.
So I think life is so, so boring. I think we start… I personally, I started depression now, that after COVID, I really struggled for me to come back to life actually. After the COVID, I feel like I just sleep all day, I do nothing. “What’s the purpose of my life?” Like these kind of questions in my mind.
Then I started here again. And then we did wellbeing courses as well. So they help us as well. And they help to come out from depression.
David Taylor: We’ve just heard that moving account from Sanah, and I think it makes sense to see COVID as one of just the latest of a rolling series of crises that have crashed down onto people’s lives.
Carey, does that make sense to you? I wonder how you would sum up the issues facing parents and children today?
Carey Oppenheim: So mental health is definitely a big issue, and we know that it has got worse during the COVID pandemic and continues to be a big issue. We also know that depression and anxiety are, perhaps surprisingly, the most commonly diagnosed illness among mothers with a young child.
So there’s some really difficult issues that need to be tackled, but it’s also – and closely related to – issues of poverty, inequalities, housing, deprivation, health.
David Taylor: Let’s talk a bit about poverty in detail then. So how big an issue is childhood poverty today in Britain, compared to the previous generation?
Carey Oppenheim: So over a third of families where there is a young child under the age of five are living in poverty today. And that has increased substantially since 2013.
So it’s a big issue. And one of the striking things is that we see the rate of poverty for young children being particularly high in larger families. When we say large families, we mean families with three children or more.
And part of the reason for that is changes in the economy, and so on, but also changes in tax and benefit policies. In particular there’s a policy called the ‘two-child limit’ which is where Universal Credit pays for two children, but not more than two children.
David Taylor: What about changing work patterns?
Carey Oppenheim: Yes. That’s a very good point. So we tend to think that poverty is about being out of work. But actually, increasingly, poverty also relates to people who are in low-paid work, they’re in insecure work, they may also be on zero-hours contracts.
That growth of insecure work is becoming a much more common feature of the experience of families with children.
David Taylor: And when you drill down to that third of young families that are in poverty, are there different strata within that? Are some more disadvantaged than others?
Carey Oppenheim: There are big differences in people’s risk of being in poverty. So if you look at families who are from ethinc minority backgrounds, they’re much more likely to be in poverty.
And if we take one group in particular – families of Bangladeshi origin – there are these shockingly high rates of poverty, standing at over 70 per cent. That’s a huge number.
And then there are other groups that are also at risk. So if you have a child with a disability, you’re more likely to be in poverty, and indeed if the adult has a disability, again the same. Or if you’re a lone parent, where over half of lone parents are in poverty in the UK today.
David Taylor: So what does that all add up to? What are the consequences for young children’s lives?
Carey Oppenheim: So of course it has, not surprisingly, a major impact: a direct impact, in terms of the things you can’t afford. Children are going hungry, or they’re not able to afford a nutritious diet.
There’s a major issue about housing. We’ve seen a big increase in the private rented sector, so for some families, that means poorer quality housing and also more insecure housing.
But there are also indirect impacts of poverty, and those are very important. And so those are the things like poorer physical and mental health, and the way in which poverty seeps into relationships.
So it’s really important that we think not only about the direct impacts of poverty, but also about the indirect ones and how we can support families through that.
David Taylor: So Claudia, is this something they see a lot at Longsight?
Claudia Williams: Yeah. Absolutely. And all these problems that Carey’s just detailed, it’s something that Longsight’s trying to deal with. It’s not just that they see it, they have to try and come up with a solution to it, because they really have become the main point of contact for a lot families, and a lot of those families are struggling.
Leah Chikamba: Everything is now becoming costly: electricity, gas, even the food itself. So we are seeing more of our families asking for food from the food banks.
And with housing, a lot of our parents are struggling with the state of their housing. And obviously if it’s private rented, our outreach workers have had to speak to their landlords to say, “this is what’s happening,” especially families with tiny little babies, newborn babies, to ensure that there’s heating in the home.
And as I said, food, especially for the newborn babies, milk, and nappies, wipes, those are the things that we’ve had quite a lot of parents come to us with.
Rukhsana Ahmed: And especially with our, some of our very new to the UK families who don’t have recourse public funds, we have to set them onto that path of actually getting some access.
So it does… it is really, really tricky. And also, during the course of the pandemic, as we all know, that domestic abuse and domestic violence was on the rise. And we did find that.
Claudia Williams: Longsight were one of the only Children’s Centres open throughout the whole of the pandemic. And in a world of websites, and phone calls, and Zoom appointments, that in-person contact can be really crucial. Especially, like Rukhsana mentioned, when it comes to cases of domestic violence.
Rukhsana Ahmed: I remember a parent needed to speak to me for a length of time and she said, “I said I was gonna go and buy something, and he will see that I haven’t bought anything.”
So I gave her a fiver to say, “go and buy something. Go and buy something so that you’ve got something to show for it.”
Carey Oppenheim: I mean, this raises really important points. What we saw is: nearly three-quarters of local authorities reported an increase in conflict between parents during the pandemic.
We also know that around half a million children under the age of five in England are living in a family where either there is an experience of domestic abuse, or that the parent has mental health difficulties, or there’s an issue of drug or alcohol dependency. And some families are experiencing all of those things.
So the role of Children’s Centres, Family Hubs, can be critical in providing that whole-family support in very, very difficult circumstances. But it depends on knowledge, and trust, and understanding between the person who’s working in that centre and the parent.
Claudia Williams: Despite everything they do and everything they’re offering these families, things haven’t been easy for Longsight either.
Claudia Williams, on recording: Could you kind of paint a picture for me about the sector more generally? What were the struggles before the pandemic? What are the struggles now?
Rukhsana Ahmed: I’ll be honest and say it’s funding. And it’s not just funding for the early years sector in terms of nursery. It is funding for Children’s Centres as well.
I mean, when I started here nine years ago, we had probably about 10 to 15 outreach workers just in the Longsight area. And before the pandemic, and even now, we’re looking at two.
Claudia Williams: These limits can come down hard on one of the most important parts of any children’s service: the staff.
Selena Haye: So my name’s Selena Haye. I’m a stay and play manager and outreach worker here at Longsight.
I started as a student, and then from a student I managed to secure a job in the nurseries they had at the time. And then when the nurseries unfortunately started to dissolve, I applied for another job which was the Stay and Play manager, and the outreach worker, and the CAPS worker, and I got all the jobs. I got them all in one! So it does get quite manic.
Claudia Williams: When I spoke to Rukhsana she told me that the Centre really values their employees, they’re hugely proud of people like Selena, but they are forced to undervalue them because of their pay. And that has big impacts on recruitment and on retention.
And Selena, for her part, is feeling the pressure. But she says what keeps her going is how important she feels her job is.
Selena Haye: I think people have that kind of outlook on a Sure Start centre or a Children’s Centre as just poor people, people who are working, and people who are just generally struggling their life, but actually because of COVID and now this new kind of struggle that’s happening, we’re seeing people who had businesses, who had been working for many, many years, and actually just don’t know the benefit system because they hadn’t had to use it previously. But some people have lost businesses, lost their jobs, and they’ve had to, luckily, come to this service and they’re really, really grateful for it, to be honest.
But it is a lot of work, and I feel that we are gonna need some, maybe, you know, more staff. I think people are leaving just because they know what outreach used to look like five or six years ago.
I’ll stay. Definitely.
David Taylor: Heroic work, but you can’t get away from the fact they feel undervalued.
Carey Oppenheim: Well, that’s exactly right. So more than two fifths of that workforce had to claim state benefits on top of their very low wages. So it’s not surprising that people leave to do other things.
And yet, as you say, they’re doing such important, pivotal work. I think we underestimate the value of care, whether that’s care workers or whether that’s parents.
David Taylor: So Carey, here’s a really simple question: do these places just need more money?
Carey Oppenheim: Yes, they do need more money. So there is a funding question in relation to the early years. But it’s not only about money. It is also about what we spend money on, and how we organise services.
At the moment, the way in which you access services as a family with a young child is really difficult. You’ve got to navigate lots of different systems, you might have to give information many times. It’s not organised around the family and the child, except in some of the local areas that we’ve just seen are doing brilliant work, or some of the Children’s Centres that are doing brilliant work.
So what would the UK look like if we actually began with the child and the family, both at very local levels – how do we bring those services together – right the way up to how we organise government departments in the middle of Whitehall?
How do we provide a set of services that go from really light-touch information guidance to something that might be really quite intense, working with a family for quite a period of time to help them?
David Taylor: You sound quite frustrated!
Carey Oppenheim: I think it is frustrating! The information is highly complex. If we just take childcare, it is really difficult to navigate the system. It depends on the age of the child, it depends on your income, it depends on whether you’re working or not, whether there are any special needs.
So it’s not surprising that often, some parts of the system don’t have the kind of takeup that we would want, and needs to happen if we’re going to make a difference to children’s lives – especially for the most disadvantaged.
David Taylor: And is it an obvious thing to say that the people who have the greatest need are often getting the least?
Carey Oppenheim: Exactly!
David Taylor: So a couple of simple questions: what can the state do to help?
Carey Oppenheim: The state can certainly make a real difference, both I think by setting a vision for early childhood as being important, and that we need a strategy, and to link those services and to fund them properly.
So you could begin with Family Hubs. Family Hubs are a good thing. But at the moment the commitment is for half of local authorities, and the funding is much less than the funding that there was for Sure Start Children’s Centres at their height.
So we have the foundation stones. And then I think a key thing that government needs to do is recognise the importance of poverty in young children’s lives, and the way that that impacts on their welfare and their future life chances.
David Taylor: And what about employers?
Carey Oppenheim: Employers play a really important role in terms of thinking about: how do we create the kinds of part-time jobs that people want to stay in and progress in, that men and women can do and combine with childcare? So they also have a vital role.
David Taylor: What gives you hope?
Carey Oppenheim: Small children. Their creativity, their playfulness, their resilience in many ways. And alongside that, you can see huge commitment from people who work with young children, and parents, and carers, who keep things together – often in really hard circumstances.
So I take real inspiration from that. And I think also that we can see a lot of initiatives going on. Because we could wait a long time for government to act. It doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. We can do many things.
David Taylor: This has been the final episode of our show.
If you want to read more about Nuffield’s research, you can go to nuffieldfoundation.org.
And if you’ve enjoyed this series, I think there’s a great chance you’d like a lot of what we do at Tortoise – our investigations, podcasts and live events. To become a Tortoise member go to tortoisemedia.com/invite and use the code DAVE50 for 50 per cent off membership.
Life, Changing has been a Tortoise podcast in partnership with the Nuffield Foundation.
It was produced by Phil Sansom, reported by Claudia Williams, and presented by me, David Taylor.
Special thanks to Carey Oppenheim, and thank you very much for listening.