Why children need children’s centres

KFLast month the Sutton Trust published a report that updates us on the status of children’s centres in England. The findings are concerning; they estimate that between 2009 and 2017 that more than 1000 centres may have closed. Of those that are still open (approximately 2400), more are only opening part-time and offering reduced services, with an increased focus on targeting ‘high need’ families. The primary driver for these changes are financial pressures – in the last two years budget cuts have hit 69% of local authorities. Co-author Kathy Sylva describes the report as grim reading, but highlights that the report does share hopeful messages of how some authorities have developed more innovative ways to survive. She cites “links with local nursery/primary schools” as an example, which the report says are “a way of better integrating services for young children and families that will enhance child development” (2018: 28).

But what are children’s centres? They evolved from Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) in 2003 and aimed to be a universal one-stop shop of services for children from 0-5 and their families, to lead to better outcomes for all children, parents and communities (Sure Start, 2004: 4). Rallings (2014) 1  divides the services that children’s centres offer into three areas: health and wellbeing services (like antenatal and postnatal checks, baby massage and healthy lifestyle sessions), learning services (like stay and play sessions, adult qualification opportunities and music/story time) and parent development and support services (like safeguarding support, domestic violence interventions and positive behaviour programmes).  Since 2013, the core purpose of Sure Start Children’s Centres has been three-fold: “to improve outcomes for young children and their families and reduce inequalities between families in greatest need and their peers in (1) child development and school readiness; (2) parenting aspirations and parenting skills; and (3) child and family health and life chances”.

Both large- and small-scale studies have explored what the impact of children’s centres can be on families. For instance, Donetto and Maben’s (2014) study exploring parents’ perspectives of community and children’s centre health visiting services found that the groups counter social isolation and help parents form relationships with health professionals. In their research one mother describing her centre as “a godsend” (2014: 2564) because of the free opportunities to meet other people whilst other said that with the help of a children’s centre family support worker she felt able to attend the centre and without that “I would never have got out and I wouldn’t have got the friends that I’ve got now…” (2014: 2564). Meanwhile, in 2015 the Department for England published a report on the impact of children’s centres (Sammons et al., 2015), which found children’s centres had positive impacts on children’s outcomes (such as their behaviour), mother’s outcomes (for instance in terms of their mental health) and family/parenting outcomes (like in improvements to the home learning environment (HLE)).

The Sutton Trust offer a series of recommendations of what needs to happen next, including the need for the government to review the children’s centre programme, which has been promised since 2015 (Bate and Foster, 2017: 25). But what do you think? Do you think children’s centres are important? What messages would you send to the government about what their future should be?

1 Rallings, J. (2014) What are children’s centres for? Barnardos. Available at: http://www.barnardos.org.uk/15733_what_are_children_s_centres_for_report_v2_hr.pdf (Accessed: 10th May 2018).

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