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Child benefit should be conditional on free hours take-up, report claims

The receipt of child benefit should be conditional upon all parents eligible for the free entitlement scheme enrolling their children in ‘quality pre-school education’, according to a new report.

Promoting more diverse social networks for disadvantaged people from ethnic minority groups, published by independent think tank Bright Blue, proposes that policy to tackle poverty should focus on nurseries, Sure Start children’s centres and primary schools.

The report is based on research that shows having strong and diverse relationships is associated with a reduced likelihood of living in poverty.

Its author, Ryan Shorthouse, claims that the most disadvantaged adults and children are often the least likely to take up places in Sure Start centres or nurseries, meaning they miss out not only on these services but on the chance to increase their social networks, which can lead to enhanced knowledge.

He highlighted the “significant and enduring education and social benefits” of children, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, attending high-quality early years settings.

Parents should recognise that formal education “starts way before their child is aged five” and that “receipt of their child benefit should be conditional on enrolling the quality pre-school education through the early years free entitlement”, he added.

Leading early years organisations have spoken out against the proposal, which they perceive would see parents being punished for not taking up the free entitlement offer.

Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch said: “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.

Other proposals made by Bright Blue in the report include that Sure Start centres should deliver key services, such as birth registration and English language classes, and collect standardised data on participating families; and that Ofsted should inspect ‘whether the social composition of governing bodies and advisory boards reflects that of local communities’.