Last reviewed 17 September 2014

Liz Hodgman reports on the government funding targeted at vulnerable children and families living in poverty or on low incomes.

The Government’s agenda was originally to provide free childcare to 20% of two-year-olds from September 2013. This has now been increased to 40% from September 2014.

Rolling Out Free Early Education for Disadvantaged Two-year-olds: An Implementation Study for Local Authorities and Providers states: “The programme aims to provide good-quality early education combined with support for parents, for example, to improve their confidence in supporting their children’s learning and to deal with other challenges in their lives, such as health problems and family difficulties.”

This has resulted in many children who would not normally have accessed childcare before their universal three- or four-year-old funding, or even before starting school, now being in funded childcare 15 hours per week, 570 hours per year. For many providers, this has resulted in working with families that have complex needs that they have not experienced previously.

Identifying families in need of support

Providers need to consider how they are going to support these vulnerable families. The government document Working Together to Safeguard Children 2013 sets out expectations for all professionals who are in contact with children around early identification and assessment. It also provides guidance that might alert a professional to a child with potential need for early help. This includes children who:

  • are disabled and have specific additional needs

  • have special educational needs

  • are in family circumstances that present challenges for the child, such as substance abuse, mental health issues, domestic violence

  • are showing early signs of abuse and/or neglect.

There are many definitions of what makes a family vulnerable, but they are likely to include:

  • a workless household

  • material deprivation, ie poverty

  • disability, physical or emotional, or long-term illness

  • the learning disability of a parent

  • poor quality housing or overcrowding

  • no qualifications and/or low level of basic skills

  • maternal mental health (including postnatal depression)

  • low income

  • family separation or breakdown

  • bereavement within the family

  • drug and alcohol dependency

  • homelessness and transient families

  • abusive relationships (both adult and child)

  • isolation due to ethnicity or lack of extended family

  • criminality (parent in prison).

How can providers support these families?

“Providing early help is more effective in promoting the welfare of children than reacting later,” it says in Working Together to Safeguard Children. “Early help means providing support as soon as a problem emerges, at any point in a child’s life, from the foundation years through to the teenage years.”

Supporting vulnerable families with complex needs can be challenging. It normally requires multi-agency working, assessment, planning and reviews, and a commitment from the family to improve its situation. There are a number of tools that professionals can use to support this process, eg the Common Assessment Framework or Family Outcome Stars.

Although most childcare provisions will not have a staff team that are highly trained in family support work, they are able to provide support by:

  • identifying needs/concerns early

  • discussing with parents and getting consent to refer to another agency

  • working in partnership with other agencies

  • being involved in the assessment, planning and reviewing as part of a multi-agency team

  • encouraging parents to engage with other agencies and attend appointments.

It is important that provisions know what the support package/programme is in their own local authority. What is the criteria for referrals and how are referrals made and processed? Is there a dedicated officer available to discuss concerns and referrals with? Linking in with the local Children’s Centre and building good relationships with its family support or keyworkers will be extremely helpful. Finding out what services it can provide, for example evidence-based parenting programmes, will make it easier to refer families.

When working with vulnerable families, there may be an increase in the referrals made to social care for children who are at risk of harm. Poor attendance can be an indicator that there are problems at home, or can highlight the need for support to access the provision, eg the parent might have a disability.

Although attendance for children under five is not statutory as it is in schools, it is good practice to encourage regular attendance to support school readiness and narrow the attainment gap. Provisions should monitor children with poor attendance and ensure that any concerns are followed up.

Training for staff team

Working Together to Safeguard Children states: “Training should cover how to identify and respond early to the needs of all vulnerable children, including: unborn children; babies; older children; young carers; disabled children; and those who are in secure settings.”

The staff team will all need to be able to identify children that are potentially vulnerable and be able to either work directly with the family or refer to a more senior member of the team. Working with vulnerable families requires a specific skillset.

Action for Children has produced Skills Framework for Developing Effective Relationships with Vulnerable Parents to Improve Outcomes for Children and Young People (PDF), which includes skills, knowledge, practitioner qualities and experience.

Skills include having good communication skills, being able to empower and enable families, flexibility, and being a reflective practitioner.

There are many different models and strategies for working with families that help to empower them, build relationships and resilience, eg the Family Partnership Model. Provisions might consider developing principles for family work. These are likely to include confidentiality, being open and transparent, listening to all members of the family, being non-oppressive and anti-discriminatory.

Supervision for staff

Supervision for staff is now included in the welfare and safeguarding requirements for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Supervision sessions with staff enable them to discuss any concerns they may have. They ensure that appropriate referrals are made for support, if required, and that the practitioner is working safely.

They also provide an opportunity for the staff member to discuss the impact that working with a family may have had on him or her personally.

Providing information on parenting issues

Provisions should develop a file of information on different aspects of parenting, including:

  • managing behaviour

  • toilet training

  • establishing routines

  • healthy eating

  • supporting children’s learning and development

  • improving the home learning environment.

It is important when providing information to parents that it is easily accessible. Ensure that any in-house publications are written in simple language to support parents with low levels of literacy. Make good use of visuals, images and photographs.

If your provision is in an area with families where English is not their first language, you will need to develop some information in the most popular home languages.

Information might be in the form of leaflets, posters, via a website or social media.


Although some of the families may be categorised as “hard to reach”, they may be easier to engage with workshops than families that are funding their own childcare.

Historically, childcare has been for families to enable them to work, but many of the funded children come from workless homes so they will be less restricted in attending sessions.

Running sessions on toilet training for families when their children first take up their funded place would be beneficial, as the expense of disposable nappies can be a big drain on a family budget.

Developing the skills of the staff team to support vulnerable families is vital if the Government’s programme is to be achieved. It aims to:

  • provide good-quality early education

  • support parents

  • improve parents’ confidence in supporting their children’s learning and to deal with other challenges in their lives, such as health problems and family difficulties.