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As many as 1,000 Sure Start centres across the country have closed since 2009 – twice as many as the government has reported – according to a new study by the Sutton Trust.
The Stop Start study by Oxford University academics says official government data suggests a 14% drop in the number of centres between August 2009 and October 2017 – down from 3,632 to 3,123 are likely to be a big underestimate because there is no clear definition of a ‘children’s centre’.
It states that due to local mergers, reorganisations and service reductions, many of the original centres have been converted to ‘linked sites’, which offer fewer services and are counted by some authorities but not by others. It adds that looking at just ‘registered children’s centres’ themselves, the drop since 2009 is more than 30%. In areas that have not had closures, local authorities have had to reduce services and staffing.
The Sure Start Children’s Centre programme, introduced in 1998 by the last Labour government, brought together ‘under one roof’ services for young children and their families, with the aim of “giving children the best possible start in life” through improvement of childcare, early education, health and family support and with an emphasis on outreach and community development. Focused initially on the most disadvantaged areas in England, the programme was later extended to all areas. By its peak in August 2009, there were 3,632 centres, with over half (54%) in the 30% most disadvantaged areas.
Stop Start finds big regional variation in the extent of closures. By 2017, 16 authorities who had closed more than half of their centres accounted for 55% of the total number of closures. But in areas with fewer closures there has been a reduction of services and staff, leading to fewer open access services such as Stay and Play and more parents having to rely on public transport to find a centre offering what they need.
The report warns that the closures are creating a ‘postcode lottery’ of early years provision. They say the children’s centre programme is now at a ‘tipping point’, with more authorities preparing to make drastic cuts this year.
The researchers surveyed local authorities for the reasons behind the changes in provision. Financial pressures came top in 84% of local authorities, with 69% of authorities reporting a budget decrease in the last two years. ‘Change of focus’ came a close second (80%) with local authorities reporting a move away from access for all towards targeting of individual high need families, in some cases with a much wider age range (0-19).
According to the report, “services are now ‘hollowed out’ – much more thinly spread, often no longer ‘in pram-pushing distance’. The focus of centres has changed to referred families with high need, and provision has diversified as national direction has weakened, leading to a variety of strategies to survive in an environment of declining resources and loss of strategic direction.”
The Sutton Trust is calling on the government to complete the long-promised review of the children’s centre programme, as well as maintaining a national register of children’s centres which establishes minimum levels of provision. The Trust would also like to see children’s centres reconnect with their original purpose of promoting positive child and family development for under-fives by focusing on providing open access services in centres that do not stigmatise families whose children attend as ‘troubled’.
Professor Kathy Sylva, lead author of the report, said: “At a time of increasing pressure on poor families with young children, there is an urgent need for evidence based services to support them.”
Meanwhile, a report out today from the Institute for Fiscal Studies looks at the impact of the new eligibility criteria for free school meals under Universal Credit. Although it finds slightly more children from low-income households will benefit than under the current system, it points out that there will be winners and losers. The report says: “The net increase in eligibility under UC is entirely accounted for by the children of lone parents: among the children of couples, there will be as many losers as winners. But there are winners and losers within both groups.” Among the losers it says 90,000 children in workless families will lose eligibility for free school meals. It also points out that plans to freeze the £7,400 net earnings threshold in cash terms until 2021–22 will affect eligibility in years to come.