Analysis: What next for children's centres?

It is estimated that almost a thousand children's centres have closed in England during the last decade. Sue Cowley weighs their value and makes a powerful case for renewed investment.

Greenfields Nursery School and Children's Centre in Southall is graded outstanding and is a member of Ealing's Early Years Quality Partnership
Greenfields Nursery School and Children's Centre in Southall is graded outstanding and is a member of Ealing's Early Years Quality Partnership

One of the most commonly heard points of frustration from those working in the early years is the lack of joined-up thinking from policy-makers. An example of this is the publication of the Bold Beginnings report by Ofsted (2017), which appears to promote more formalised learning in Reception and potentially limits the chances for active learning, in the face of a growing awareness of rising childhood obesity. Or the 6.2 per cent increase in the minimum wage that comes in from April 2020, which will seriously impact on costs for early years settings, at the same time as promised additional funding is less than what is needed to cover even just that increase. The increase in the hourly funding rate for our setting from April 2020 will be 8p an hour, or 2 per cent well short of the increase we will need to apply to staff wages.

Sue Cowley

Joined-up thinking

Where policies promote joined-up thinking, they are typically very popular with the sector because they stem from the perspective of the ‘whole child’ – where practitioners focus on the children's care, learning and development as a whole, rather than viewing these in a piecemeal way. In addition, they see the situation from the sharp end – they understand how one policy can negatively or positively impact on another. They see the sad truth of the way cuts to spending and increases in child poverty affect children and young families, because they see it daily in their settings.

The idea of a single centre, where children and families can go to access services that affect all areas of their lives, is therefore intuitively a very attractive one to those of us working in the sector, because it mirrors the joined-up thinking that is such a defining feature of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

Looking back to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, we see an attempt by the Government of the day to promote this kind of joined-up thinking, through the funding of the Sure Start programme and of children's centres where families could access the whole range of services.

The history of Sure Start

Sure Start was a flagship Labour policy, which was first announced in Parliament in 1998 and then launched in 1999 as an area-based programme, targeted at the 20 per cent poorest wards in England. The programme was designed to deliver services to young children and their families, and it was given £450 million funding for its first three years. In 2003, Every Child Matters (ECM) was published, in response to the tragic death of Victoria Climbié. The report aimed to ensure that service providers worked with children and their families in an interconnected way (HM Treasury, 2003).

The purpose of the ECM agenda was to design a strategy that would look at all the issues faced by young people, and those working with them, in the round. The document proposed a shift from a centrally controlled approach to children's centres, to one where it was controlled by local authorities who had a better grasp of the needs and context of their own particular area or region. That year, the Government committed to opening 3,500 children centres across England by 2010 – a goal which was indeed realised by the end of the decade. These centres were designed to offer integrated care and services for young children and their families.

Children's centres changed the way that services were provided, by offering a range of services, or easy access to a range of provision, such as childcare, community health services, family support and links to employment and training opportunities. A report from the Institute for Government (Bouchal and Norris, 2012) concluded that ‘children's centres have largely been very successful’, noting that there is now ‘widespread agreement that early years interventions are critically important’. This change in thinking about early years – the idea that the earlier you can intervene, the better the results will be – can also be seen in the expansion of the funded childcare offer by successive governments.

A series of evaluations of children's centres have been done, looking at the policy from different angles – their impact on children and families, the value for money of the policy, and so on. The Evaluation of Children's Centres in England research was a six-year study carried out by a consortium of organisations and funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families under the Labour Government and the Department for Education (2016) under the Coalition/Conservative Governments. The research is complicated by the multitude of factors involved in early child development, and particularly because the project was aimed at the most vulnerable families. Both positive and negative impacts were identified in the evaluations.

Cuts to funding

Since 2010, children's centres have seen a 62 per cent cut in spending, with expenditure by cash-strapped local authorities almost £1 billion lower now than it was at the start of the decade. The Sutton Trust estimates that almost 1,000 centres have closed since 2009. The Government's own figures show that 548 have closed with a further 722 no longer offering the range of services that they once did. Funding cuts are clearly playing a key role in these closures, with funding for children's services way down on what it once was.

A report from Action for Children (2019) looked into children's centre usage between 2014/15 and 2017/18. The report found that the number of children using children's centres had gone down from 2.2 million to 1.8 million – a result of cuts to spending. Worryingly, the numbers of children using the centres were down by 22 per cent in the 30 most deprived areas, compared to 12 per cent in the 30 least deprived.

Success stories

It's not all doom and gloom, though. Many local authorities are working hard to support and sustain their children's centres while the National Save Our Children's Centres Campaign is increasingly making its voice heard through social media and other channels.

In a recent report from Nottinghamshire we get an overview of the kind of vital work that is carried out, the impact on the families that they serve, and how this work might have a positive influence far into the future (Nottinghamshire Children and Families Partnership, 2017).

For example, services to teenage parents, one-to-one work with children, help with parenting skills, links to specialist services and advice on healthy lifestyle choices. This kind of pre-emptive work mirrors the original vision of the Sure Start programme – that an early intervention could improve outcomes and also save money in the longer term. For example, one of the report's findings includes the following: ‘350 attendees at a sleep course on average a year. Costs saved of two GP visits in a year (excluding medication costs) = £31,500’.

Probably one of the best-known children's centres is Pen Green – an award-winning centre in Corby, Northamptonshire that offers a very wide range of services to families, children and practitioners. Pen Green includes a children's centre, a nursery school, day care and after-school care, as well as being a designated teaching school and offering parent and adult community education. In 2018, Pen Green won the TES Award for early years setting of the year, and also the overall award for school of the year.

Due to the integrated nature of their provision, children's centres will often find themselves subject to a number of Ofsted inspections – for a nursery school, childcare provision, and of the children's centre itself.

Children's centres and social mobility

In recent years, the concept of ‘social mobility’ has played a key part in policies and announcements coming from government. Social mobility describes the idea that it should be possible for children from all backgrounds to ‘make it’ to the ‘top’ of society, based on their individual merit rather than on the circumstances of their birth.

In the recent report ‘Stop Start’ (Smith et al, 2018) published by the Sutton Trust – a charity dedicated to the idea of social mobility – Sir Peter Lampl noted that ‘if we are serious about social mobility we need to stop the piecemeal closure of these vital community resources’ and called for ‘a clear national strategy to improve social mobility in the early years'. The report looked at the high levels of closures of children's centres in recent years and states that ‘financial pressures came top in 84 per cent of local authorities as a principal driver of change in recent years’.

The report gave a series of recommendations for government, including the idea of a national register of children's centres to establish minimum levels of provision, and to give clear criteria about what constitutes a ‘children's centre’. The report also suggested that centres should move away from a focus on referred children and families, and ensure a good mix of families were using the service to support social mobility and children's social development.

‘… centres should move away from a focus on referred children and families, and ensure a good mix of families are using the service to support social mobility and children's social development.’

Mobility or justice?

Interestingly, in recent years it has been noted how the concept of ‘social mobility’ fails to take account of the barriers to progress that are experienced by the poorest families in our society. Despite years of focus on and attempts to ‘close the gap’ between outcomes for children from families who are living in disadvantage, and those from more advantaged homes, the gap has barely shifted.

More recently, the concept of ‘social justice’ has come to the fore – the idea that it might be more equitable to focus on closing the gap between the richest and the poorest in our society, rather than expecting those at the ‘bottom’ of the ladder to climb up it themselves. Questions have been asked about whether we do actually live in a ‘meritocracy’ – a society where people move through their own merit – and to what extent systemic barriers such as racism and other forms of prejudice prevent people from escaping disadvantage.

It is troubling to note that the gap between the richest and poorest in our society has actually increased in recent years, with the top 10 per cent of households having 45 per cent of national wealth in 2018 and the poorest 10 per cent only 2 per cent. The Equality Trust (2019) has found that the UK has a very high level of income inequality compared to other developed countries.

Interestingly, one of the key benefits of children's centres is that they offer access to services that can help families overcome the gaps that disadvantage can cause – both around education and health. Even if the research shows mixed results in terms of their benefits, there is a case to be made that simply in terms of an ethical response, they form an essential part of the early years sector.

Key points

  • Children's centres have seen a 62 per cent cut in spending since 2010,and it is estimated that 1000 of them have closed since 2009
  • While the concept of ‘social mobility’ has played a key part in government policies in recent years, the concept of ‘social justice’ is now coming to the fore
  • Children's centres offer access to services that can help families overcome both health and education gaps caused by disadvantage

Keep up to date with Early Years!

Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with Early Years education, process and events! We promise we won't spam you!