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Our position on early years

Kids has over 50 years on the ground experience working alongside disabled children, young people and their families, providing support, advice and information from birth to 25, whatever their disability.

Our ambition

Our ambition is for every disabled child or young person to meet their own potential. We believe that the right support and a range of opportunities need to be in place to ensure that every individual can thrive.

This means that learning, play and social opportunities are available from the early years through to adulthood, supporting disabled children and young people’s development and wellbeing. It means families aren’t having to fight to get the help their children need and it means the views of disabled children and young people are at the heart of all decisions made about them – at individual, service and policy levels.

Early years has been a policy area that has been particularly neglected by successive governments. While that is beginning to change, it is vital that the needs of disabled children in the early years are at the front and centre of any reforms in this area. Similarly, early years has to be central to proposed changes to the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) system.

Areas of focus

Early years education and support

  • Children with SEND should have access to quality early years education and support – from formal nursery provision to home learning to social and play opportunities. This is especially important given children with SEND often need additional support to help them in their development.
  • Early years practitioners can provide significant practical and emotional support to families. Working alongside families they can ensure parents better understand their child’s needs, can help them navigate the complex health, education, care and benefits system and ensure they can access all the help they are entitled to.

Barriers to access for children with SEND

Nursery and childcare

  • The number of local authorities in England that report they have sufficient childcare for children with SEND (including nurseries and childcare places) is decreasing.
  • Parents say they aren’t taking up Government funded childcare that they are entitled to. They tell us they don’t feel confident in the provision that exists or are turned away from nurseries who tell them that they can’t meet their child’s needs.

Portage Home Based Learning

  • We know this service isn’t as widely available as needed. We are also now hearing that some families are being offered group Portage, which will be inappropriate for many especially if no 1-1 sessions are offered at all.
  • To widen access to Portage, the Department for Education should pilot flexible use of the funding for the free childcare entitlements so it can be used on Portage, as appropriate and in line with parental choice.

Play and social opportunities

  • Parents tell us that they have felt judged and isolated attending some universal services and so no longer attend, meaning disabled children are again excluded from social and development opportunities.

Lack of national leadership on early years provision

  • At the heart of the shortfalls in the system for disabled children, is the historic lack of national leadership on early years provision as a whole and a near total neglect of SEND in any policy discussion on early years.
  • In parallel, developments on educational support for children with SEND have frequently overlooked early years, concentrating programmes and investment on school aged children, despite the obvious significant gains that could be made by investing in the early years.

Dearth of data about children with SEND

  • There is a dearth of data routinely collected and published about the needs of children with SEND in early years and the provision available. This has resulted in a lack of clear national picture of what is currently happening and what needs to change.
  • At a local level, this means councils are not properly planning for the needs of their local population, reflected in the insufficient provision of formal nursery placements, but also in the lack of availability of appropriate play groups and social opportunities and Portage Home Based Learning.

Funding for early years

  • There are significant issues in the funding formulae for early years SEND. There are a number of funding pots that should be available to nurseries from central Government and the local authority to support children with SEND in their settings. Funding is needed so that settings have access to any specialist equipment as well as the right number of properly trained staff.
  • However, the way that local authorities organise funding for early years SEND provision differs from local authority to local authority. In a survey of providers by the Early Years Learning Alliance, 87% said the funds that they were provided with were insufficient.
  • Nurseries often aren’t able to apply for additional funding until the child has started with them. Delays in getting the funding once they have applied for it are also widespread.

Workforce planning

  • Early years educators supporting young children with SEND tell us they are also struggling to access wider support from local health and social care services for the children in their care. In our experience, this has become even more acute since the pandemic, which has increased demand.

A complex health, care and education system

  • Parents tell us that all too often they are sent from ‘pillar to post’ in trying to find the help their child needs. This poses a significant challenge for parents in getting the right help for their child.
  • In response, Kids is piloting a SEND Navigator Service in Birmingham to support families in finding the right local services that will provide them with the early years support and education that they are entitled to and deserve. We know there are similar services being provided elsewhere and would urge the Department for Education to work with us and others to look at the feasibility of rolling out this model nationwide.

Our recommendations

  • The Department for Education (DfE) should consult those with expertise in early years and SEND as they develop the new ‘National Standards’ for SEND provision, the new guidance for local SEND Partnerships and guidance on the content of Local Inclusion Plans that will be developed as a result of the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Alternative Provision (AP) Improvement Plan.
  • DfE should reform the way the funding for SEND in the early years works, to ensure it is sufficient, allocated consistently across England and to make sure it is available before a child starts at the setting, allowing sufficient time for planning and recruitment.
  • DfE should review their data collections through the Early Years Census and ensure data on early years is included in the new local and national inclusion dashboard to ensure there is a clear picture, nationally and locally of the education, play and social provision children with SEND are accessing in the early years and any gaps.
  • Local authorities should use this data to inform local planning, including the new Local Inclusion Plans, Health and Wellbeing Plans and the local offer to ensure there are sufficient childcare places for children with SEND, sufficient Portage and adequate supply of local inclusive and/or specialist playgroups and activities for children with SEND under 5.
  • DfE should update the Early Years Educator (EYE) Level 3 criteria, to include SEND as a standalone criterion and continue to invest in programmes to improve the knowledge and expertise of early years educators in SEND.
  • Joint action from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and DfE on workforce planning for specialist staff (e.g. speech and language therapists) should include planning for support that children with SEND in the early years need from these specialists.
  • DfE should develop a pilot to look at how the 15 hour and 30 hour childcare funding could be used to pay for Portage Home Based Learning.
  • DfE should commission a feasibility study to capture existing practices that achieve the objectives of the Kids SEND Navigator pilot and assess the viability of providing a Navigator for every family with a disabled child.