MPs express concerns over Sure Start

Widespread confusion and uncertainty around the provision of Sure Start Children’s Centres in England could cause a major obstacle to parents accessing the help and support they need, according to the interim report of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Sure Start. 

Widespread confusion and uncertainty around the provision of Sure Start Children’s Centres in England could cause a major obstacle to parents accessing the help and support they need, according to the interim report of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Sure Start. 
The Group are calling on the Government to hold local authorities to account where they  may be failing to provide families with the statutory required minimum level of services or where they are at risk of breaching their obligations under the Childcare Act 2006. The Group also wants to see a more rigorous approach to consultations to changes in Sure Start services to ensure that all parents have the opportunity to have their voice heard.
The report has been submitted to the Children and Families’ Minister Sarah Teather ahead of her scheduled appearance at the Group’s next session on Wednesday February 29th 2012. MPs have also raised a number of concerns about whether parents have sufficient information to either access local Sure Start services or to take part in local discussions about plans for local Sure Start facilities – many of which are providers of childcare.
“Where a well-qualified All Party Parliamentary Group has trouble getting to the bottom of what services are available in which local authority, there can be little doubt that a large number of families would find accessing those services very difficult indeed,” says the report.
It also highlights MPs’ concerns at the overall lack of clarity around the future of Sure Start Children’s Centres on both a national and a local level; what it sees as a lack of commitment to Sure Start among from some local authorities; and instances where it believes local authorities appear not to be meeting their statutory responsibilities in the provision of children’s services.
As a result of the group’s concerns, the MPs have recommended that the Department for Education should:
– produce nationally applicable guidance on how numbers of Sure Start centres, and the services they provide, should be reported;
– establish quarterly reporting of the number of Sure Start centres locally and nationally and the level and range of services delivered;
– provide local authorities with clear requirements as to how they should be fulfilling their statutory responsibilities under the Childcare Act 2006; and
– consider further sanctions against local authorities which fail to follow those instructions.
The MPs have recommended that local authorities should:
– follow best practice principles in their consultations with parents by conducting more open and meaningful discussions about potential threats to services or local changes in Sure Start;
– fully comply with their statutory responsibilities to provide enough Sure Start provision in their area – considering the best ways to deliver the broad and varied benefits of Sure Start to their constituents to further early intervention, support public health, further educational achievement, reduce family crisis and the number of troubled families, support employment and reduce poverty; and
– be involved in the production and sharing of best practice guidance on how to delivery Sure Start services following budget reductions.
Annette Brooke MP, Chair of the All Party Group, said: "The number of quality programmes that can be accessed by parents may well be more important than just focusing on the number of Sure Start centres available, but with the most recent government figures showing that at least 124 Sure Start centres have closed or merged since the coalition took power, there is a great concern among many MPs from all the major parties that services for parents may be at risk.
“Even with the huge challenges presented by budgets cuts to the provision of Sure Start, it is simply not acceptable that local authorities should create such confusion for parents – providing them with little information or opportunity to express their views about services. We can only have greater local democracy if we provide people with the facts and the figures they need to get involved in local debates. I find it worrying that a group of MPs have struggled to gain an accurate picture – I can only imagine how difficult it must be for ordinary families to find what is being offered for their children’s future.
“In such cash strapped times we need more clarity not less. Parents have a right to this and both central and local government have a responsibility under the law to ensure that provision is adequate.
“Our concern is deep but our hopes are high – we have seen some local authorities show truly remarkable commitment to Sure Start and maintain and even extend  provision despite cuts and we want others to follow suit, especially given the need to ensure a supply good quality childcare.”
The national charity, 4Children – which provides the secretariat to the Sure Start All Party Parliamentary Group – will carry out a Children’s Centre Census to survey all centres in England and will ask questions about the number and type of staff they employ; the number of childcare places they provide; the mix between universal and targeted services and about the extent to which they charge for services. The results will allow 4Children to track changes in service provision including the impact of reduced funding.
Anne Longfield, Chief Executive of 4Children, said: “Families are understandably concerned that Sure Start Children’s Centres will change  in the future, and that the vital services they deliver will be put at risk – particularly in the difficult climate of reducing budgets. One of the major challenges for local authorities is to maintain and develop their services and support for families at a time of immense economic pressure.  It is clear from the APPG inquiry that with commitment and determination this is very possible. We need every council to learn from these creative approaches to put Sure Start at the centre of their vital support for young children and families.
 “Parents are finding themselves trapped in a double whammy of needing more help with childcare because finances are tight at the same time that government is reducing its own spending in this area.  The result is a cocktail of stress, juggling childcare and for some the difficult decision of giving up work. Helping them through these difficult times has to be a priority – locally and nationally – and this is why we are now carrying out our annual Children’s Centre Census.”

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