Do children's centres even matter?

Posted by / Thursday 31 May 2018 / Campaigns

Children’s centres are safe spaces for parents and their children. We hear parents say all the time how their local centre has been a "lifeline" for them and their children. 

These centres support families who are facing difficulties; parents with mental health issues, children living poor in housing, families struggling with money or people whose own childhood experiences affect their parenting. They are often the first place to identify issues, intervene early and help parents access more support before problems get more out of hand.

Sutton Trust research has shown that nearly 1,000 children’s centres have closed since 2009 – twice as many as the Government reported. Throughout our Best Start in Life campaign, where, together with parents, we have been urging the Government to protect vital funding for children’s support and services, we have encountered a lot of misconceptions. 

1. Children's centres make no difference

There is overwhelming evidence that the early years should be the starting point if we want to improve a child’s life chances. But in areas across England, three out of five children walk through the school gates on their first day already behind their peers.

In the critical early years of children’s lives, children’s centres provide support for children and parents, helping with child health, well-being and development from the very beginning. A government evaluation found using centres helped improve children’s home environment - a key factor in getting children ready for school since children spend much of their first years at home – and even to improve the relationship between parents and their children.

We know from our experience that parents have found centres a lifeline - getting the help they desperately needed to support their children, to leave an abusive partner, to address mental health problems. Thinking about their lives without access to centres and the support they provide doesn’t bear thinking about for many parents.

2. Children’s centres are only used by a certain group of parents and families

People who use children's centres can't be labelled as one type of person. Centres offer critical help for all different types of children, parents and families up and down the country and they are open to everyone. Issues like isolation, worrying how to support your child, and mental health issues can and do affect all types of parents no matter where you are from or how much money you have.

Some parents are younger and others are older. Some may be parents for the first time, nervous that children don’t come with an instruction manual. Other parents have additional difficulties, possibly dealing with isolation, domestic abuse or mental health problems.

One parent stressed that her local centre was the only place that she felt ‘comfortable’ with her disabled son. Another parent commented that their local centre and staff were the only ones who knew about her struggles with post-natal depression – she didn’t feel able to tell her partner or family.

Whatever their reason for being there, children’s centres are a key part of local communities and provide an open, diverse and supportive environment for parents from all backgrounds.


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3. Children’s centre closures are the fault of councils

Local councils have to make many difficult decisions about where resources go. From financing things like bus services, adult social care, weekly rubbish bin collections, or caring for the elderly, councils have to make tough choices on where money is spent. 

But councils can’t control how much money they have to spend on services.

The amount of money they can spend on services like children's centres, depends mainly on funding from central government. 

For local authority children's services, this has fallen by an astonishing £2.4 billion since 2010.

This drop in funding has created a very worrying situation for councils across the country. Local leaders are now saying that children’s services are the biggest pressure facing councils - above adult social care for the first time in three years. 

At the same time, there has been a 108% increase in child protection investigations. During 2016-2017 alone, there were 646,120 cases of children being referred to council social care services - a 4% increase on the year before. So, demand for help is increasing as funding and support falls.

The Government said it will work to improve social mobility and close the development gap between children from poorer backgrounds and their better off peers.

But in recent years, the rate of closures of children’s centres has increased. 

There is a clear mismatch between the government’s words and actions. Yet it is children and families who are losing out, and will keep losing out until something is done.

4. Children’s centre services only matter for parents

Education, health and wellbeing are the most important things when it comes to improving child development, alongside parenting support and development.

This is what the government itself said is the purpose of children's centres back in 2013. 

But nearly 1000 have closed down, and the remaining centres are not able to provide as many services as they used to. 

Not only are we letting down countless children and families, but failing to invest in the early years is more costly to the taxpayer, local councils and central government – both in the short-term and the long-term.

And removing support is not the way to help children. With no support for parents, more of the most vulnerable children reach a crisis point before children’s services are able to step in.

When support is provided early on, we can stop children from reaching that crisis in the first place

We know that providing support and help in the beginning, before problems escalate, makes sense.

5. The Government can’t do anything 

We know that children’s centres provide essential support for a variety of children, parents and families throughout the country.

The Government must ensure that councils receive the funding they need to deliver these services. This means closing the gap in funding for children’s services, including a commitment to properly fund early support and help.

By failing to respond to the funding crisis, the Government is making bad situations worse, for so many children and families across the country. 


We're doing everything we can to get the government to understand how important these services are, and how closing these centre's is leaving thousands of children and families without any support. 

With your support, we will keep urging the Government to provide vital support for early years services so that all children get the best start in life. If you haven’t already, you can sign our petition below.


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If you know someone who might want to read more children’s centres show them this article and let us know your thoughts with the #beststart on social media.   


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