Cllr Caroline Woodley, Cabinet Member for Families, Early Years and Play, provides an update on support for families during the pandemic:
As the new Cabinet Member for Families, Early Years and Play, I knew that I was taking on a challenging role. My appointment in the first week of March coincided with the run up to the spring budget, and some of the first work I did was around two key campaigns, calling on the Government to invest in early years, and to properly fund our special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision.
I had no idea how quickly these concerns would escalate. By mid-March we were in lockdown, and the coronavirus pandemic had changed everyday life as we know it.
Covid-19 continues to have a massive impact on everyone, but for those of us who need extra support to get by, it is shattering. Familiarity and routine are vitally important to many people with additional needs, and this is exactly what the pandemic has stripped away.
Making Hackney’s voice heard
I recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, calling on him to provide reassurances for parents and families whose routines have been disrupted, and who are facing dilemmas on deciding how and when to return to work.
I identified childcare, digital inclusion and support for children and families with SEND as key issues of concern in this moment of transition. Specifically, I asked him for assurances that early years settings – such as nurseries and childminders – will be given the financial assistance they urgently need, and that families with SEND will have access to long term support, including assistance with digital devices and specialist software.
My letter also called on the Government to provide access to free school meals during the summer holiday – something the footballer Marcus Rashford campaigned so brilliantly for.
With 48% of children in Hackney already locked into poverty prior to the devastation of the coronavirus, we were relieved to hear of the Prime Minister’s U-turn, which will help many families in the coming months. We must press to ensure this support will be extended to all children in need, regardless of immigration status. Holiday hunger is just one example of the huge disparities we see in everyday life, and is a reminder of why we must never stop fighting inequality.
As we look ahead to the summer, I am really disappointed that the Government has excluded early years from the widely publicised catch-up programme announced today. Early years education is the foundation for a lifetime of learning and development. It is in these settings that additional needs can be identified at an early age and vital support put in place that can go on to make a huge difference throughout each child’s education. We will continue to call on the Government and do what we can locally to support families affected.
As a fiercely proud single mum, I know how hard it can be to admit to needing a little extra help and support. I am in awe of everyone who has found time, often amidst their own parenting and caring duties, to step in, speak out and share the experiences of this crisis. It has also been hugely important to hear from children, and to see them engage in doorstep and street play, brightening up windows with rainbows and reminding us that this crisis will not last forever.
As a Council, we’ve been working hard to support those who need us most. In our disabled children’s service we have made changes to our short breaks scheme, helping families to secure equipment that can be used at home, and we will be opening this offer up in the summer to enable outdoor activities. We have built capacity in our education, health and care plan (EHCP) teams to manage a steady increase in referrals, and sought to maintain our therapeutic services, turning where possible to digital means. We are reinstating face-to-face visits just as soon as it is safe to do so.
We have brought together online resources developed by our brilliant teachers, children’s centres, specialists and therapists. We must help families to access these resources, and build confidence in those using them for the first time, especially where English is an additional language, or assistive software is required by families with SEND.
We have ensured nurseries are included in the latest discretionary grant scheme – applications are open now and close just shy of midnight on Friday 26 June.
We have also this week submitted our response to the parliamentary inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services, setting out 12 recommendations for consideration as we build on what we have learned so far and move into the next phase of this crisis.
Listening to families
People are now talking about a ‘return to normal life’ but for many of our families this feels a very long way off. We will continue to listen and do everything we can to provide support.
Finally, I’d like to thank all the staff, carers and volunteers who are supporting our children and families through this challenging time – you embody the Hackney Spirit that we are so proud of.