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Over 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres across the country have closed since 2009, twice as many as the Government has officially reported, according to research by the Sutton Trust.
The report ‘Stop Start’ found official Government data has grossly underestimated the amount of children’s centre closures, recording a 14 per cent drop in centre numbers, from 3,632 to 3,123, between August 2009 and October 2017.
The Sutton Trust research suggested a clearer estimate might be about 30 per cent, and this was likely to be a conservative estimate because of a lack of definition of what a ‘children’s centre’ is and also because official data doesn’t ‘keep up with closures announced locally’.
The main report recommendation was that the long-delayed review of Sure Start children’s centres should not be put off any longer.
‘Thousands of families are missing out’
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, was highly critical that the future of children’s centres was so uncertain. He said: “Good quality early years provision makes a substantial difference in the development of children especially those who come from the poorest homes.
“It is a serious issue that the services that Sure Start centres offer are much more thinly spread than they were a decade ago. Additionally, since 2010 there has been a precipitous decline of 30 per cent in the number of Sure Start centres. Thousands of families are missing out on the vital support they provide.”
The Sure Start children’s centre programme, introduced in 1998, was the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Labour government’s early years offering. The idea of the administration at the time, was to bring services together ‘under one roof’ for young children and their families.
By its peak in August 2009, there were 3,632 centres, with over half (54 per cent) in the 30 per cent of most disadvantaged areas, but after 2015 there was a period of gradual decline.
By 2017, sixteen authorities which had closed more than half of their centres accounted for 55 per cent of the total number of closures, according to the Sutton Trust report.
In January 2018, a damning report by charity, Action for Children, stipulated that over 1,000 children’s centres in England had not been inspected for over five years, leading to inadequate services and an increase in centre closures.
In 2015, Ofsted inspections had been ‘frozen’ whilst consultations about the future of centres were underway, however the consultations are still outstanding and consequently the Ofsted inspections are still in limbo.
The report warns that the closures of children’s centres is creating a ‘postcode lottery’ of early years provision and say the Sure Start programme is now at a ‘tipping point’, with more authorities preparing to make drastic cuts this year.
Ministers ‘should be ashamed'
Tracy Brabin MP, Labour’s shadow early years minister, said: “Tory Ministers should be ashamed that it took this report to expose the true extent of the damage their policies have caused.
“Sure Start provides support and education for families who need it most, yet as this report shows, Conservative cuts have created a postcode lottery in Sure Start provision.
“The Government said that where they decide to close a children’s centre, councils must demonstrate that children and families, particularly the most disadvantaged, will not be adversely affected, and that they are still meeting the duty to have sufficient children’s centres to meet local need.”
The report urged that the ‘long promised review” of children’s centres finally take place. It was also sceptical about many centres merging to offer services to older children as well as pre-school aged children. Sir Peter Lampl said: “The Government should complete its long-promised review of the programme. Instead of trying to serve all age groups, children’s centres should reconnect with their original purpose of promoting child and family development for the 0-5 age group.”
Services of remaining centres are ‘hollowed out’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance believes that cuts in spending are to blame for the current situation. He said: “Despite all the recent rhetoric around social mobility and improving life chances, it’s clear that children’s centres – a vital source of support for disadvantaged and vulnerable families in particular – have fallen off the Government’s list of priorities.
“If the Government is truly committed to supporting disadvantaged and vulnerable families, it simply must ensure that children’s centre services are adequately supported. This means not only greater investment, but also a much clearer policy on what children’s centres are meant to achieve, and how the Government intends to support them to do so.
“Over the past few years, sustained cuts to children's centre funding have resulted not only in widespread closures, but also – as this report rightly points out – the hollowing out of many of those services that remain technically open.”
A Government spokesperson, responded to the report, saying: "Councils will receive more than £200 billion for local services, including children and young people services, up to 2019-20. In addition to this we are investing more in childcare support than any other government – around £6 billion a year by 2019/20.
“It is right that we give councils the freedom to decide what services they provide for their communities as they are best placed to understand local needs and how best to meet them, whether through a children’s centre building, a family hub, or another model.”