Latest research from Prof Kathy Sylva, Prof Pam Sammons and their team at the University of Oxford has used administrative data, a survey of local authorities and a series of case studies to paint a picture of what has happened to children’s centres across England. It shows decline, both in numbers and services, but also adaptation and a struggle to survive.
A key initiative under the last Labour government, Sure Start children’s centres bring together services for young children and their families and act as the gateway to more specialised provision. From 2005 onwards, responsibility for children’s centres was increasingly devolved to local authority level and under the coalition government after 2010, the budget was no longer ring-fenced, but merged with other programmes. By 2013, national guidance on the ‘core purpose’ of children’s centres shifted focus to targeting ‘high need’ families, rather than open access to universal services.
The result has been to move children’s centres away from the original idea of an open access neighbourhood centre. ‘Stop Start’ highlights how services are now much more thinly spread and as national direction has weakened, provision has diversified. Local authorities now employ a variety of strategies to survive in an environment of declining resources and loss of strategic direction.
- The national database recorded a 14% drop in centre numbers between 2009 and October 2017. However, there is no clear definition of a ‘children’s centre’ and therefore many closures announced locally were not yet reflected in the database: our survey showed a 16% drop. If we only count ‘registered centres’, the drop since 2009 was more than 30%, suggesting that more than 1,000 centres nationally might have closed.
- By 2017, sixteen authorities closing 50% or more of their centres accounted for 55% of the total number of closures nationally. Six authorities (West Berkshire, Camden, Stockport, Bromley, Oxfordshire and Staffordshire) had closed more than 70% of their centres. Despite this reduction, the proportion of centres in the 30% most disadvantaged areas remained constant from 2009 to 2017 at just over 50%. So, numbers dropped but the focus on disadvantaged areas remained.
- More centres operate on a part-time basis only and the number of services has fallen. While most centres still offer open access services to families of all backgrounds, these have been reduced, restricted to fewer centres or to fewer sessions. Six out of ten local authorities reported most centres were open full-time; but few or none were open full-time in almost one in five authorities. Reduced services were reported by 55% of local authorities, with only 35% providing a range of ten or more services.
- Financial pressures came top in 84% of local authorities as a principal driver of change in recent years. This financial squeeze since the removal of ring-fencing is intensifying, with 69% of authorities reporting a budget decrease in the last two years.
- ‘Change of focus’ came a close second (80%) as a driver of change. This was not just a move towards greater targeting of individual high need families and away from open access. It was also a way of integrating children’s centres into a wider package of ‘early help’ as part of local teams with a much wider age range (0-19), with more than 40% of authorities extending the age range to include school age children.
- Changed national and local priorities have played a part. The suspension of Ofsted inspections and the lack of any national guidance since 2013 on the purpose of children’s centres were seen in our survey as reducing the importance of children’s centres. The effect was to reduce the strength of children’s centres in local authority priorities.
- The government should complete the long-promised review of the children’s centre programme to confirm its national importance and overall purpose with national guidelines. This could stop the piecemeal local closure of centres which is creating a postcode lottery of provision.
- The central purpose of children’s centres to promote positive child and family development primarily for the 0-5 age group should be stressed. Focusing on this age group underlines the importance of the early years in child development. Linking children’s centres closely to local nursery or primary schools fits closely with this developmental focus for children’s centres.
- Children’s centres should reconnect with their original purpose. Shifting the balance too far towards referred children and families, away from open access, and merging children’s centres into preventative teams working with a very much wider age group, serves a very different function and requires very different skills. It does not seem to fit well under the label of a local ‘children’s centre’. A good mix of children is important for social mobility and children’s social development.
- A national register of children’s centres should be maintained which establishes minimum levels of provision for inclusion. Clear criteria of what constitutes a ‘children’s centre’ should be established. Better and more up to date data should be collected and published nationally on all children’s centres.
- Once the review is completed, the government should consider re-establishing inspections of a set of core services, to embed children’s centres as a national programme, and ensure accountability and quality of service delivery.