New research evaluates how effectively Sure Start programmes help children with special needs and disabilities

Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) support children under four and their families by integrating early education, childcare, health care and family support services in disadvantaged areas. Providing services to families where there were special needs and disabilities was one of the
core tasks that the programmes were required to carry out. A new research study* has looked at how they tackled it.

The report finds considerable evidence about the barriers that parents of disabled children encounter. They face extra financial costs, are less likely to be able to work, and the majority live on a low income. These families are under stress, both from the demands of their child and from difficulties of obtaining support. They are often in contact with a wide range of professionals and report ‘a constant battle’ to find out what is available and the role of different agencies. Black and minority ethnic families, in particular, tend not to take up the services and benefits that are available. There has been concern about how far disabled children and those with Special Education Needs (SEN) are able to access early learning, play and childcare. And the support available for pre-school children with SEN has been poorer than that available for those at school, though there is clearly potential for preventative work when children are younger. Reforms intended to tackle these weaknesses were underway alongside Sure Start Local Programmes, and were outlined in the Children Act 2004 and the National Service Framework for Children. Initiatives such as Together from the Start (2003), which provides guidance for improving identification, intervention and multiagency support for families; the Early Support Programme, which develops good practice in these areas; and reports on offering opportunities, such as Improving the Life Chances of Disabled Children, all provided a climate in which SSLPs could make a contribution. The emphasis in all of them was on early intervention, greater coordination between services and improving the skills of the workforce.

This research project aimed to explore:

  • how SSLPs developed services to meet the needs of children and families with special needs and disabilities in terms of core (mainstream) and specialist (targeted) provision
  • the range of practice across different areas and for different groups
  • factors which enabled some SSLPs to excel in meeting the needs of children and families with special needs and disabilities, or which acted as barriers to progress.

The definition of special needs and disabilities used is that contained in the Sure Start guidance (2002): ‘A child under four years of age has a disability or special needs if she or he: (i) is experiencing significant developmental delays, in one or more of the areas of cognitive development, physical development, communication development, social or emotional development, and adaptive development; or (ii) has a condition which has a high probability of resulting in developmental delay.’ SSLPs varied as to whether there was a staff member with expertise in special needs or disabilities. Programmes where the special needs expert was a key staff member using their experience to influence broader practice, including staff development opportunities, information systems and funding arrangements, were among the most effective in working with children and families with special needs and disabilities.

Key findings

SSLPs varied in the ways they identified and counted special needs and disabilities, but those studied estimated that they were working with between five and 120 children in this category, with an average of 40, or 5% of the age group. The highest incidence of need reported by SSLPs was speech delay, followed by behaviour issues, autistic spectrum disorders, development delay, hearing or visual impairment and Down’s syndrome. It was the way SSLPs improved the services they offered to all families – providing more of them, in more accessible, better settings, with more flexible responses to what parents wanted – that made it possible for families with additional needs to participate. Where SSLPs provided services targeted at children with special needs and disabilities – such as portage and special playgroups – they were more likely to reach children with more complex needs. The SSLPs that were doing this were in contact with larger numbers of families in this category. Family support services proved the most useful aspect of Sure Start for families with children with more complex needs. These services help families to cope in crises, obtain services and benefits, gain skills and confidence in supporting their child’s development and get some respite from their caring responsibilities. Home visiting was particularly important in reaching isolated and vulnerable families. The availability of specialist health services such as speech and language therapy and mental health outreach was significant for these young children, enabling preventive work to occur, and developing parents’ skills in promoting their child’s development and managing their behaviour. Inclusive practice, flexible staffing and funding have made early learning, play and childcare opportunities available for children with special needs and disabilities, but early years provision was not always well integrated with other SSLP services. Future improvements to early years provision will need to be made in developing the links between services that enable forward planning and supported transitions for children with special needs and disabilities, that develop staff skills and confidence and enable holistic responses to children’s needs. * A Better Start: Children and Families with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in Sure Start Local Programmes Author: Anne Pinney Sure Start National Evaluation Summary

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