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Early Years Education and Children With Disabilities

Partnership and Participation e.g. Sure Start or Direct payment


The Local Government Act of 2000 requires all local authorities to consult with all other appropriate bodies when they are considering strategies for education and care in the community. This attitude to service provision is termed partnership. The Local Authority may call on representatives from service providers, businesses, the voluntary sector, and community groups, as they see fit in order to provide a joined-up approach to care in the community. This approach applies to health services, community and social care services, job centres and education. Such local strategic partnership should also involve, and take on board the views of, people in the community. Partnerships that are formed in areas where social deprivation, social exclusion and health inequalities exist will need to find ways of addressing such problems within that community.[1]

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Participation refers to the part played by individuals in a community in decision making within local partnerships. Numbers of Government departments, voluntary sector organisations, and community groups are in agreement that children and young people should have more involvement in decision making, in this way they participate in the plans for their future. It is envisaged that such participation will lead to change that benefits young people and the wider community.[2] The Children and Young People’s Participation Project (CHYPP) believes that involving young people in the decision process will only be achieved through effective partnership working.[3] Partnership, as already outlined, and incorporated in the Sure Start initiative means that the information on a child and its family will be shared with other professionals. The Children’s Trust Phase 1 report found that some professionals were concerned about information sharing because of data security. Parents, however, were in favour of greater co-operation between agencies and of information sharing providing the security of data was protected.

This paper will assess Government discourses of partnership and participation by looking at the inclusion of children with disabilities in the early years sector and whether this is best achieved through initiatives such as Surestart or through Direct Payments.

The early years of a child’s life are the most important in terms of their general well being, their emotional and social development, and their physical, intellectual and emotional growth. A very high proportion of what children learn takes place in the first five to seven years of life. Children, whether or not they have disabilities, develop at different rates. What happens in the home is extremely important to development in early childhood. There is also a growing perception that this is a time when children are most open to high quality care and learning experiences. In light of this Government have developed policy for the early years that aims to provide a full and comprehensive range of services for the very young. In line with its initiatives on social inclusion the Government also encourages a more integrated approach to services for children with disabilities or other special needs.

In 1999 Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships were set up in each local authority to promote the expansion of early years education. Delivery of services was to be co-ordinated through Sure Start, local authorities and voluntary organisations.

The Government introduced Sure Start Children’s centres in the most deprived areas. These were designed to combine nursery provision, employment information and family support on one site.

The Sure Start Children’s Centre programme is based on the concept that providing integrated education, care, family support and health services are key factors in determining good outcomes for children and their parents. The concept itself is not a new one. Sure Start Children’s Centres are about building on existing good practice, rather than starting afresh.[4]

At Sure Start Centres under the new regulations parents will be able to access all the information they need and will be able to participate in the decisions that affect them and their children. However, the plan to introduce multi-agency working throughout childhood and to document young people’s progress from early years on into the workforce suggests increasing government control of people’s lives. The document Every Child Matters pledges an overhaul of the early years sector and more and better provision.[5] These policies were introduced in an attempt to encourage greater participation and combat social exclusion, however it is Billington’s (2000) contention that current practice tends to pathologise rather than celebrate and incorporate difference. Power relations that are reproduced in the everyday processes of social interaction which are generated by governments and institutions need to be resisted as they tend to support the pathologising of difference.

In November 2005 the first piece of legislation relating to early years provision the Childcare Bill was introduced in Parliament. Under this Bill parent’s expectation of high quality childcare and children’s services for the under fives will become enshrined in law.

The Bill aims to achieve greater user participation and give the parents of children with disabilities more say in the provision of care. Nutbrown (2004) suggests that the multitude of early years policy developments in the UK in recent years have had an impact on the effective inclusion of children with disabilities or other special educational needs into pre-school settings. Under the 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act social services have a duty to find out who are the people with disabilities, how many there are in their area and what help it can give people. It also has a duty to publish details of its services and to inform clients of their rights in relation to such services.[6] The 1995 DDA covers everyone with a mental or physical disability. The needs of disabled children are also covered by legislation relating to special educational needs (sen) as identified in the 1996 Education Act. All LEAs and educational settings have duties under this act. SEN duties are integrated with the duties defined in the DDA which focuses on the removal of barriers, increased access and prevention of discrimination. The 1996 Education Act specifies that all those professionals involved with the needs of a child are required to provide advice to LEAs so that they can make decisions about a child’s educational needs and placement. The Act states that

  • Disabled children should not be treated less favourably than other children.
  • Adjustments should be made to accommodate disabled children in the setting
  • Increase access to the physical environment
  • The curriculum must be accessible to disabled children
  • Integrated partnership working to ensure continuity for disabled children
  • Regular review of policies and practice to anticipate and address barriers for disabled children.

Despite such legislation not all childcare centres are equipped to deal with the needs of children with disabilities and numbers of them do not have sufficient funding for a designated SENCO to address the needs of such children.

Government claim that the new Childcare Bill means that parents will be able to choose the services that best suit their needs. They will be able to access services provided through Surestart Centres even though they may not live an area covered by Surestart. Under the terms of the Bill all Local Authorities must:

improve the well-being of young children and reduce inequalities in relation to –

  1. Being healthy – physical and mental health and emotional well-being
  2. Staying safe – protection from harm and neglect
  3. Enjoying and achieving – education, training and recreation
  4. Making a positive contribution to society  support for the vulnerable and positive outlooks
  5. Social and economic well-being  parents in employment

Integrated early childhood services must include –

  1. Early years provision (integrated childcare and early education)
  2. Social services
  3. Relevant health services e.g. health visitors, ante-natal, post-natal care
  4. Services provided by Jobcentre Plus to assist parents to obtain work
  5. Information services (under the revised duty in clause 12) (Every Child Matters: Childcare Bill 2005:2).

The Bill promises to put early childhood education at the centre of Local Authority Activity. Targeted Surestart funding will be used so that child centres can be sustained for the long term. Thus giving more resources to local communities to tailor these services to meet the needs of local people. The Bill states that Local Authorities will need to have specific regard for the childcare element of Working Tax Credit and for childcare that is suitable for disabled children (Childcare Bill, 2005:4). The Authority will need to review the childcare needs of everyone in their area while paying particular attention to the needs of those families who may have a child with disabilities. The Government is determined, through its introduction of Childcare Trusts, to encourage greater participation of families and young people in the decision making process.

Under the Health and Social Care Act 2001, following assessment parents of children with disabilities are entitled to direct payments in lieu of social services in an attempt to give them greater choice and flexibility in the care of their children. In 2003 parents of children with special needs were issued with a guidance booklet on how to get the best value in care and services and how to interview and employ carers themselves. Families with disabled children would also be entitled to a key worker so that they have one point of contact for information regarding their entitlement and choice of care. Government guidelines recommend that the best way of using Direct Payments should be decided by Local Authority Partnership schemes and participating users who would then draw up a plan that best suited their local needs. The Guidelines also recommend that Authorities produce promotional material with respect to the benefits of using Direct Payments. Parents who have children with disabilities and who use direct payments to access services are still entitled to regular assessments of their situation by the Local Authority.


Recent policy making encourages partnership between organisations and greater participation of service users in decision making. At the same time such policies might be viewed by some social workers as just another form of social control where Government and other agencies seek control over people’s lives from the cradle to the grave. Although Government are providing more childcare and more inclusive measures for those families who may have children with disabilities, and this is to be applauded, other aspects of this policy making may result in the exclusion of those who most need help.

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While the Government maintains (Direct Payments Guidelines 2003) that people will have a choice whether to receive Direct payments or to access care through social services, at the same time it is incumbent on Local Authorities to increase the number of people in receipt of Direct Payment and this will be monitored by the Government. It is arguably the case that Direct Payments are just another move in the process of dismantling welfare provision in this country. Monitory Local Authorities in this way is usually a result of budgetary concerns and so it seems fair to postulate the Government are cutting costs under the banner of providing greater choice.






Billington, T. 2000 Separating, Losing and Excluding Children: Narratives of Difference New York, Routledge.

Nutbrown, C. 2004 ed. Research Studies in Early Childhood Education London, Trentham Books


[1] http://www.odpm.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1133744

[2] http://www.participationworks.org.uk/Categories/Findoutabouttheimpactofparticipation/tabid/76/Default.aspx

[3] http://www.participationworks.org.uk/AboutParticipationWorks/tabid/58/Default.aspx

[4] http://www.surestart.gov.uk/surestartservices/settings/surestartchildrenscentres/


[6] http://www.after16.org.uk/pages/law5.html


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