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MPs to question Children’s Minister, Sarah Teather about Sure Start

Article By: Rachel Baker, News Editor

As part of their inquiry into the future of Sure Start Children’s Centres, members of the All Party Parliamentary Sure Start Group will be questioning the Children’s Minister, Sarah Teather on Wednesday 29 February in Westminster. Representatives from 4Children, Action for Children and the Children’s Society will also be present.

The APPG inquiry follows figures published by 4Children in January 2011 which showed that 250 Sure Start Children’s Centres were at risk of closure and a further 60% of centres were likely to provide a reduced service. In November, the government confirmed that there were now 124 fewer Sure Start Children’s Centres than there were when the coalition government was formed last year.

Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Sarah Teather responded to a question on Sure Start Provision:‘We absolutely recognise that childcare is a very difficult pressure on many families’ budgets… We have invested significant extra money in enabling two-year-olds to access free early education, 20 per cent of two-year-olds by 2013 and 40 per cent by 2014.’

MPs are concerned that the uncertainty and confusion regarding Sure Start Children’s Centres in England could cause problems for parents getting access to the help and support they need.

The members of the Sure Start All Party Parliamentary Group are requesting Government holds local authorities to account where they may be failing to provide families with the minimum required level of service, or are at risk of breaching their obligations under the Childcare Act 2006. The group is also calling for 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 group has published its interim report as part of its on-going inquiry on the impact the significant changes in the way Sure Start Centres are delivered and funded will reduce resources for children and family services. The report has been submitted to the Children and Families’ Minister, Sarah Teather MP, ahead of her scheduled appearance at the APPG’s next session on Wednesday 29 February. MPs have raised a number of serious 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.

The group sate: ‘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.’

Highlighting the MPs concerns at the lack of clarity around the future of Sure Start Centres on both a national and international level; the report questions the lack of commitment to Sure Start among some local authorities. It also suggests instances where 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

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

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. It will ask questions about the number and type of staff they employ including 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 OBE, 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.'

Image courtesy of Liberal Democrats' photostream: 'speech sarah teather 4'


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