Jan Tregelles MencapBudget cuts and patchy provision means children with a learning disability face a postcode lottery when it comes to accessing Portage services, research by Mencap has revealed. 

Portage is a home visiting educational service for preschool children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families. The Portage model involves and recognises parents as the first educators of their children. Portage home visitors work with parents to help encourage their child’s development by identifying what their child can do and build important skills for future learning.

However, 1 in 5 local authorities provide no Portage services whatsoever, despite 81% of parents finding them invaluable, Mencap found.

Mencap is calling on the next government to commit to ensuring all children with a learning disability get the right support at the right time so they can develop to reach their full potential. 

Parents told Mencap that Portage: 

Prepares children for nursery, pre-school or school

Focuses positively on what a child can achieve 

Provides parents with practical and emotional support 

Teaches parents and siblings a variety of techniques to enable them to interact effectively with their child, ranging from sensory play sessions to Makaton

Helps to connect parents with other families who have a child with a learning disability 

Prevents families from reaching crisis point.

However, Freedom of Information requests sent to all local authorities in England and Wales revealed that last year, 37% of councils reduced their expenditure on Portage and 21% of councils propose a reduction in expenditure on Portage this year. What’s more, almost 1 in 5 local authorities do not provide any Portage services whatsoever.

Blogger and campaigner Hayley from Cornwall is mother to 7-year-old Natty who has Down’s syndrome. Portage helped to give Natty a great start in life – she is flourishing in mainstream school and is also fronting national advertising campaigns as a model. Hayley said:

“Portage was a life-saver for me in the early days. It wasn’t just the sound advice or loan of fabulously educational toys, or even the linking up of other services, but sometimes the friendly face, telling me over a cuppa that our daughter was doing really well, meant the most. She listened to our concerns about Natty and big sister Mia and has witnessed tears too. But she always scooped us up and helped us along. Portage is an invaluable service that families can’t afford to have cut.”

Importance of early intervention services

Early intervention services, such as Portage, are very important for children with a learning disability. Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap, explained: “Children with a learning disability often don’t get the same start in life as other children and our research shows that the postcode lottery of early years support is robbing many children of their best chance of developing to reach their full potential.   

“Parents have told us that Portage not only gives their child the best possible start in life, but it is also a lifeline for them. It celebrates achievement and recognises that both the child and the family need practical and emotional support in the early stages. 

“The first years of child with a learning disability’s life are crucial – they shape the brain development that is the foundation for future learning, behaviour, and health. If early and effective support is not available for every child with a learning disability and their parents, it can mean that the child can be significantly set back in their development. The fact that these services are being put at risk is appalling.

“Every child with a learning disability needs to be empowered and given appropriate help along the way. That’s why we’re calling on the next government to commit to ensuring that all children with a learning disability get the right support at the right time so they can develop to their full potential.”

In response to Mencap’s research, the National Portage Association (NPA) – the umbrella organisation supporting parents, professionals and Portage services across the country – said: “The NPA is very much aware of the inequity of Portage provision across the country and has become increasingly concerned to hear from NPA members that a number of Portage services are facing risks of closure, redundancy, mergence or restructure. The NPA is committed to supporting all registered Portage services under threat and will continue to support the development of new services in areas currently without Portage.”