Last reviewed 26 November 2013

Judith Allen looks at the issues in the news for November.

More poverty in traditional families

Families where one parent works and the other stays at home are the largest group of households with children living in poverty, new research shows.

In two new reports published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and carried out by the IPPR and NatCen, it was revealed that nearly a third of traditional “breadwinner” families are living in poverty, which is defined as households that have a weekly income of up to £251. Income is calculated as total equalised net disposable income before housing costs.

According to the reports, 40% of sole breadwinner couples comprise a man in work and a female partner who stays at home to care for children. Many of the fathers work in routine, manual or intermediate jobs, and are not earning high wages.

Families with pre-school children say the availability of affordable childcare is one of the most important factors in the decision as to whether the mother returns to work.

The reports go on to say that the Government’s move to reduce the level of support available to families through the tax credit system is damaging work incentives for mothers in low-income families.

They call for a range of measures to enable more families to have both partners in work, including:

  • a second earner disregard in Universal Credit, making it financially rewarding for mothers to work

  • expanding the provision of affordable childcare, which includes expanding the free early education places for three- and four-year-olds, or introducing new offers to younger children

  • making it easier for fathers to spend more time at home — low-earning fathers with young children could be supported to take more time off work to spend with their families if dedicated paternity, paid at a decent rate, were available for longer periods.

Katie Schmuecker, policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “Measures like the Living Wage, supporting people to progress into better jobs and ensuring it always pays to work more will all help increase household incomes. So, too, will helping more families to become dual earning households.”

Free places for two-year-olds are a success

The parents of about 70% of disadvantaged two-year-olds eligible for early education places have so far taken up the offer, according to government figures.

Since the introduction of the free hours for 130,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds in September 2013, 92,000 have been signed up for the places. The scheme offers eligible two-year-olds 570 hours per year or 15 hours per week of funded early education, to be taken up at any early years provision rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.

The DfE says that the number of eligible two-year-olds taking up the places will increase to 260,000 from next September.

Local authorities have been asked to pass on the full amount of funding to providers to ensure that as many children as possible are able to access the places.

However, although the Pre-School Learning Alliance welcomed the announcement that 92,000 two-year-olds are receiving free early education, it stressed the importance of ensuring that providers offering funded places are given adequate support by local authorities.

Early years a worldwide priority

Global development goals that would for put early childhood development (ECD) at the heart of the United Nations have cross-party support.

In August, a campaign (including a petition with over 2000 signatures) called for an integrated approach to early childhood development to be included within the Millennium Development Goals’ framework post-2015.

Some MPs believe that the current Millennium Development Goals, which range from halving extreme poverty and providing universal primary education all by 2015, do not do enough to support children during their earliest stages of life.

A post-2015 Development Agenda will replace the eight goals, agreed to by all the world’s countries, in two years’ time.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is co-chair of the high-level panel that advises on the development framework beyond 2015.

Meningitis B vaccine for young children a possibility

New evidence that supports the introduction of a vaccine to protect children against Meningitis B is being considered by the Government.

This comes after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), a Department of Health independent departmental expert committee, concluded that “additional analyses” of the cost-effectiveness of the vaccination and its potential impact on the disease were required.

The decision, published last month, has given meningitis-focused campaign groups hope that some 1800 annual cases of the disease among children in the UK could be prevented.

In July, the JCVI recommended against introducing the Bexsero® vaccination, because it said it would not be cost-effective. This vaccine had been licensed in January 2013 by the European Commission.

The Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) estimates that between 5–10% of children who contract Meningitis B will die from the illness. About half of cases are among younger children aged under five, and 3% may end with a limb amputated.

If the committee, expected to report again in February 2014, decides to approve the vaccination, it is unlikely to be introduced until at least late 2014.

Scotland leads the fight against tooth decay

The Scottish NHS has saved just under £6m in dental treatment costs, following a programme in Scotland to improve the dental health of children in nurseries and schools.

In Scotland, the ongoing Childsmile National Toothbrushing Programme, carried out by Glasgow University, has produced this first evaluation by tracking its impact since it was launched in 2001 to 2010.

The programme, costing approximately £1.87m per year, is funded by the Scottish Government and is delivered to all schools and provisions.

In practice, this works by training all staff by health professionals to understand national standards for oral health and infection control, and to effectively supervise children’s tooth brushing.

Each child also receives a dental pack containing a toothbrush, a tube of fluoride toothpaste and regular information leaflets. A free-flow feeder cup is given to children by the age of one.

Every two years, children’s dental treatment is tracked to see how oral health has changed, calculating reductions in fillings, extractions and levels of decay. This has shown that the savings in dental treatment outweigh the ongoing cost of running the programme.

Faster diagnosis of pre-eclampsia promised by new tests

Doctors at a London hospital have developed a new test diagnosing pre-eclampsia in 15 minutes.

Researchers, whose study was published in an American Journal, believe that the rapid blood test could save the lives of hundreds of babies a year.

They suggest that testing the level of the protein placental growth factor (PIGF) in pregnant women before 35 weeks can accurately identify 96% of those who will need to have their baby delivered within 14 days.

According to the report, a low level of PIGF found in the blood would indicate severe pre-eclampsia, in which case the average time in which the baby should be delivered would be under two weeks, irrespective of how developed it is.

If a pregnant woman has a high level of PIGF, the study suggests that it is unlikely she has severe pre-eclampsia, and in the majority of cases will carry her baby to full term.

Pre-eclampsia affects 1 in 10 pregnancies, with between 1–2% of mothers suffering from a severe form of the condition.

Currently, high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine are used to diagnose pre-eclampsia. Both of these signs can be unreliable and take days to confirm.

Authors of the report hope that the greater certainty the test will provide as to whether or not a baby should be delivered early will save the lives of some of the 1000 babies who die every year in the UK as a result of pre-eclampsia.