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 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.