7. Services that meet the needs of children and families
The availability, accessibility and flexibility of services are key components in meeting the needs of children and families. The feedback from parents and children involved in qualitative research that was carried out in support of the framework was very clear in highlighting several areas where service design needs to evolve to better meet their needs.
We also recognise the importance for the Gaelic speaking community of the availability of Gaelic early years education and childcare. This is a legitimate expectation and is a key part of our aim of creating a secure future for Gaelic in Scotland. The Scottish Government is commissioning a review of Gaelic early years provision.
Flexibility and integration
A particular concern for parents is the way that childcare integrates with pre-school education and school. Improving the accessibility and affordability of high-quality, flexible, integrated education and childcare services is therefore a priority.
There is a need to balance the needs of children with the needs of parents. High quality care can help to ease this balance by conferring benefits on children whilst providing the opportunity for parents to work. There is some conflicting evidence about the time it is healthy for children to spend in group childcare, particularly under the age of 2. These arguments are not clear cut, because the ability to work can lift a family out of poverty and this is strongly correlated with improved outcomes for the child. The presence of a child in childcare services can also provide a non-stigmatising context for a range of other supports to be provided. The balance will be different for every child and family, depending on their circumstances. What is important is that parents are supported to find the right balance for them and that availability of flexible, high-quality, integrated services is improved to meet those needs.
The need for greater integration between pre-school and childcare is only part of a wider demand from parents for more joined-up services. Other areas they identified included better integration between midwifery and community nursing services.
A more flexible and integrated workforce can play an important role in meeting these needs, alongside streamlined processes being delivered through Getting it Right for Every Child. While there will continue to be a strong role for specialists in health, education and social work, there will also be a increasing emphasis on roles that span disciplines and which can support a range of needs. This is particularly important for families who have a greater range and intensity of need.
Some services are clearly defined as free entitlement whereas others have traditionally had a cost associated with them, e.g. parents generally pay for childcare and a number of culture and leisure services. Reducing such costs across the board by subsidising them for all would mean applying large amounts of resource to families which are already doing relatively well. Such costs clearly weigh heavily, however, on those on lower incomes. The real challenge is how to construct a progressive and non-stigmatising way of supporting these costs that is simple and more accessible for parents.
By far the largest cost tends to be associated with childcare, and the UK Government has established 2 separate schemes to support parents with these costs - the childcare element of working tax credit and childcare vouchers. It is clear that uptake of both schemes is lower than it could be and this is, in part, linked to the complexity of tax credits and the lack of awareness amongst employers of the benefits of childcare vouchers. In the short term, the Scottish Government will work to influence the UK Government to simplify the tax credits system and will promote greater availability of childcare vouchers in the public and private sectors.
There are particular problems for some families within the current system. The limits on the amount of childcare costs which can be supported work against larger families and those with disabled children, who face higher costs and, in many cases, a higher risk of poverty. We will use our influence with the UK Government to improve support for these groups.
The Scottish Government has argued for, and will continue to promote, the benefits of a single, progressive and accessible system for supporting parents with the costs of childcare.
Supply-side subsidies also have an important role to play in supporting affordability of childcare. Local authorities already provide structural support to a large number of childcare providers to help them with sustainability. It will be important to reflect within future plans how the approach to such funding is contributing to accessibility, affordability and outcomes more generally.
Early years services already play a very strong role at the heart of communities. Pre-school, school, playgroups, parent and toddler groups and health services are highly valued and, for most people, are readily accessible. However, the availability of transport to allow them to access key services is an issue for a number of parents.
Even where facilities are accessible, some people find it hard to get the greatest benefit from these. This can be because they are afraid to ask for additional help that they need or because of other barriers such as language, disability, social circumstances or the attitudes of staff in services. In other cases, vulnerable people fear the consequences of engaging with certain services such as sexual health services or social work. There is a real risk in these circumstances that those who would benefit most from support are least able to access it.
Advice and information services
Families need access to a range of advice and information services in order to help them understand their own role and to make informed choices about parenting and services. As well as advice available from professionals such as midwives and community health care teams, there are also a wide range of advice services and helplines that support families. These include childcare information services, tax credits helplines, parenting advice lines, mediation and counselling services, and a whole variety of wider advice services in areas such as debt.
At present these services are very fragmented. We believe the way forward is for Childcare Information Services to become family information services and act as a gateway for a range of advice that parents may need. The third sector, in the shape of Parenting Across Scotland have already started to deliver a more joined-up approach to parenting advice services and local authorities will need to consider how best to work with the third sector in developing a more integrated advice service.
Parents' awareness of the advice that is available is often low. There is a role for better marketing of advice services through universal services. This needs to be creative and go beyond written materials to more proactive work in health, education and community services and centres.
The Growing up in Scotland survey highlights the huge contribution that grandparents make to children's lives both generally and specifically in terms of informal childcare. Many children spend a lot of time with grandparents and other relatives and it is important that such informal carers have access to support to help them fulfil this role well.