It is time to look Beyond the Building for children’s centres

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We know how important children’s centres are to families. At children’s centre run by Action for Children we see every day the difference they make to children and parents.

Even though children’s centres are highly valued  by families that use them, they are not immune to changes at a local or national level. Nor have they been immune to funding  pressures in a difficult economic times. In 2010 there were very genuine concerns that large numbers of centres across the country might face closure. 

Thanks to many excellent local, parent led campaigns, the outcome of local authority cuts was not as bad as many had feared. But centres still closed and have continued to do so in the last few years. The labour party estimates that 720 centres have closed in the last five years. A number the Government strongly disputes. The Department for Education published figures showing that 214 children’s centres have closed in the last three years. Either way some children’s centres have closed their doors.

Importantly, these are the headlines and not the whole story. Whether children’s centres are working with more families, how well they are working with them and how far they are able to deliver the services families’ value,  is often lost in the debate. The debate is becoming too occupied with just numbers and missing the importance of the capacity of centres and delivering good outcomes for children and parents.  

 

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We don’t want to see children’s centres close anywhere and neither do many parents. But budgets are not increasing. In fact they are going in the opposite direction.

Barnardo’s estimate that over the last five years spending on children’s centres has fallen by 38 per cent. Wider spending on early years has decreased 48 per cent. This trend is likely to continue as local authorities grapple with further budget cuts from central Government. In 2015/2016 local authorities are projected to spend close to £150 million less on children’s centres than in 2014/2015.

We need to make sure that the Government understands that spending for children centres and other early intervention services are not a luxury expense, but an investment in children’s futures. But, we can’t just bang the drum for more money. We should be thinking about how centres can work with more families, provide better support and become even stronger faced with the reality of reducing budgets.

 

Read about the difference Riley’s local children's centre made to her

Riley is a single mother with a young daughter Bella. Without an extended family, and losing her mother when she was four months pregnant, Riley found herself isolated after the birth of her daughter. She was left to deal with the challenges of her and Bella’s anxiety alone. When Riley moved into a new area her health visitor told her about her local children’s centre. As she was worried about visiting the centre at first, an outreach worker met her at her home, went with her to the centre and didn’t leave her until she had settled in. Her first visit gave her a chance to see how welcoming the centre was and how friendly the staff where.

They encouraged Riley and Bella to come along to classes but didn’t push letting her join classes at her own pace. Staff supported Riley to get involved with classes that help parents understand their child’s behaviour and development. As Riley became more comfortable with the classes this led to her opening up and finding that many parents shared the same challenges.

Visiting the centre gave Riley a chance to socialise with other parents and to make friends through classes. Coming to the centre has made a significant difference in a short space of time to Riley and Bella who has become more independent and sociable with other children.

As children’s centres respond to the current funding climate many local authorities are looking at new ways of arranging centres. There is a new drive to focus on how and where the programmes for parents and children can be delivered, and not just from one building. This is presenting some new challenges and bringing some longstanding problems back to the fore. We need to tackle these by providing doable solutions and highlight what  politicians at a local and national level should prioritise.

This is what our Beyond the Building briefing series on children’s centres aims to do. The briefings will look at data sharing, the importance of support for parents and children  foundation years (0-5) and evolving models of children’s centres. We will show ways in which children’s centres can be as effective as possible, and strengthen the case for why funding and resources for the early years should be a top  priority.

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