Closed Doors

Children’s centres are a lifeline to families across the country. They help parents to overcome challenges and to provide a safe, warm and loving environment for their children.

Despite the important role they play, children’s centres have faced years of budget cuts and closures as local authorities face falling funding from central government. 

Closed Doors reveals the impact cuts are having on the most important aspect of a children’s centre: the capacity to help children and families.

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Key findings

What did we do?

There is no national record of the number of children and parents using children’s centres. To collate this data, we contacted every local authority in England and asked how many children and parents used these centres in the last four years. We received responses from every local authority to build a complete picture across the country.

 

What did we find?

Between 2014/15 and 2017/18, we estimate that the number of children using centres across England fell by almost a fifth, 18 per cent – from 2.2 million to 1.8 million. With local authorities taking different approaches to organising their local centres there are different patterns of how usage has changed across the country. Nationally, centres are now working with an estimated 41 per cent of children aged under-five compared to 50 per cent in 2014/15.

There is worrying trend where the most deprived local authorities have seen the number of children using centres fall by 22 per cent. This is compared to a 12 per cent in the least deprived.

More deprived local authorities continue to see poorer early years outcomes suggesting a greater need for services like children’s centres that can work with local communities to reverse these trends. Our analysis found an early association between increased children’s centre usage and a decreasing gap in outcomes between disadvantaged children and their peers.

Despite a growing debate about the potential for children’s centres to support school-aged children the vast majority of those using centres remain children aged under-five. Nine in ten children (91 per cent) who used centres in 2017/18 were aged five and under. This hasn’t changed since 2014/15.

Why does this matter?

While a fall in use may reflect changing levels of need among children and parents, there is little evidence to suggest this is the case. 

There has been little change in the number of children in need under-five for abuse and neglect and only a two per cent fall in the numbers on child protection plans. Neglect and abuse are the types of issues that parenting programmes delivered by children’s centres are ideally placed to address before they escalate.

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What needs to happen?

Our findings raise serious questions about the government’s approach to the challenges faced by children’s centres.

1. The government must show leadership and set a clear direction for children’s centres. These centres offer an ideal mechanism through which the government can achieve its ambitions to improve early years outcomes. The current lack of leadership is creating a drift in policy and risks the long-term future of centres. The introduction of a children’s centre outcomes framework would demonstrate ministerial commitment and align centres with current government.

2. The government must use the forthcoming Spending Review to allocate additional funding to local authorities. It is clear that the decline in children’s centre use is being driven by the current funding crisis facing local authorities. In spite of reductions in capacity, children’s centres remain a highly valued and effective source of support for children and families. However, without additional funding, the current trend of cuts to spending are likely to continue, limiting the level of support on offer to local

3. The government should require local authorities to submit records on children’s centre use. Each year, local authorities report on the number of children receiving government funded early education, yet no comparable process exists for children’s centres. Currently, only one in four local authorities is able to provide full data on children’s centre use in the early years. Asking local authorities to submit this data would be a valuable way to make sure councils deliver sufficient children’s centre provision to meet local need.

Read our full report