Child benefit report branded ‘deplorable, ludicrous and insulting’

Charities have reacted strongly to a report from a think-tank which suggests parents of young children should only receive child benefit if they enrol them in “quality pre-school education”.

Bright Blue, which describes itself as an independent think-tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism, said even if parents are caring for their young children at home, they should be expected to enrol their children in pre-school education for the free hours they are entitled to from the age of three, and this should be from the age of two for the most deprived parents.

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said it “deplores” the proposals, and the focus should be on educating parents rather than punishing them. The Pre-school Learning Alliance described the suggestion as “ludicrous” and “insulting”.

Pointing out the “significant and enduring” educational and social benefits from children’s participation in high-quality pre-school education, the report said this is especially the case for those from the most deprived backgrounds.

But it said the poorest adults and children, including those from ethnic minority backgrounds, are often the least likely to participate in these institutions such as children’s centres and nurseries.

As well as making the receipt of child benefit conditional upon all parents eligible for the Early Years Free Entitlement enrolling their children in quality pre-school education, the think tank also said it wants to see all children’s centres deliver birth registration and English language classes, while Ofsted inspections of children’s centres, nurseries and primary schools should take into account whether the social composition of their governing bodies or advisory boards reflects that of local communities.

Individual children’s centres should also collect socio-demographic data on participating families and receive a financial reward for increasing participation of disadvantaged people from ethnic minority backgrounds – along with a financial penalty for failing to do so.

Report author Ryan Shorthouse, a former adviser to the Conservatives on family policy and the director of Bright Blue, said: “Reducing poverty is not just about people having more money, important as that is.

“There is now evidence which shows that having strong and diverse relationships is associated with a reduced likelihood of being in poverty.

“There are significant and enduring educational and social benefits from children’s participation in high-quality preschool education, especially for those from the most deprived backgrounds. All parents should know that formal childcare, as delivered through the Early Years Free Entitlement, is primarily an educational rather than a childcare service.

“Pre-school education is so important that all parents need to recognise that formal education starts way before their child is aged five and the receipt of their child benefit should be conditional on enrolling their children in quality preschool education through the Early Years Free Entitlement.”

NDNA chief executive Purnima Tanuku said: “We should be educating parents about the benefits to their child’s development and life chances of attending high quality early education – but not punishing them.

“We need to raise awareness of the benefits to the child, especially the disadvantaged two-year-olds to increase the take-up. Currently 58% of eligible two-year-olds benefit from the funded places so there is still room for improvement.

“But reducing or taking away their child benefit could harm the whole family, at a time when tax credits are being cut.”

It said figures published by the Department for Education in January showed that 99% of four-year-olds and 94% of three-year-olds are taking up their free education hours.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “We are firmly opposed to this proposal. While we would always promote the benefits of quality early years education and childcare, the suggestion that the Government should rely on punitive measures to increase free entitlement take-up is not only ludicrous, but insulting to those families this report claims to be seeking to support, suggesting that they cannot be trusted to decide what is best for their own child.

“We believe that parents are their child’s first educator and should play an integral role in shaping their early learning experiences – including making a decision on whether or not to place their child into a childcare provision.

“The recommendation to make child benefit conditional on the take-up of a free entitlement place is beyond flawed, and one that Government would be wise to disregard completely.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2015, All Rights Reserved.