It has been revealed that a six-year study by Oxford University showing that the cuts to the funding of children’s centres, also known as Sure Start, has had a negative impact on the neediest families from the poorest areas of the United Kingdom, where they had been making a difference.
BUT…despite the final 216-page report having been agreed in August last year, the Department for Education (DfE), who had commissioned it, held it back for months before quietly publishing it on 17 December, the last day of Parliament before Christmas, along with over four hundred other statements, documents and reports. A date that has became known as “take out the trash day” according to The Mirror – as “the Tories provoked fury by slipping out a mammoth 424 documents – many of them highly embarrassing.”
The Children’s centres, which were introduced under the last Labour government’s Sure Start programme in 1998, to provide a range of services for parents and young children, including Stay and Play sessions and baby massage classes, have been hit by the funding cuts imposed on the local councils by the austerity measures brought in since 2010 by the Conservative-led Coalition and intensified by the present Conservative government.
Evelyn Sure Start Children’s Centre on Grove Street, London SE8
This has led to many Sure Start centres becoming just a shell of what they used to be, including the one on Grove Street in Deptford SE8 in the London Borough of Lewisham. This has left Evelyn Ward in the north of the borough with only Clyde Children’s Centre as the sole regulated provider of these services.
The report, the most detailed ever conducted and titled “The Impact of Children’s Centres”, looked into the benefits of the centres on the families who use them and how these centres were affected by the austerity measures. Pointing out that:
“Vulnerable families (those in high financial disadvantage) were accessing more services at their registered children’s centre than other families (including more of the specialist services such as employment and family support), and using services for longer, suggesting that centres were being successful in targeted provision for high need families”.
“The underlying rationale for the introduction of children’s centres was to support all children and families living in particular areas by providing a wide range of services tailored to local conditions and needs.”
…The original intention of children’s centres was to maximise reach, and many services were intended to be available to all families with young children who were living in such neighbourhoods. Children’s centres would thereby have an inclusive purpose rather than being available to only those families regarded as the ‘most needy’…
…children’s centres were also intended to assess local needs by studying the characteristics of local communities, and undertake outreach to attract and serve the ‘most needy’ families”.
Identifying the various benefits gained by mothers and families in poorer areas, who regularly attended children’s centres, such as: improved mental health for mothers, better relations between parents and their children, a less chaotic home life and enhanced home learning environments. In all cases, the impact was greater in centres with improved funding than in those with budget cuts.
In the conclusion, the report goes on to say,
“Children’s centres seem to be targeting high need families … They are thus addressing a crucial feature of their core purpose. Nonetheless, do children’s centre staff have the expertise and training to address complex needs? We found this to be a matter of serious concern to centre managers, and centre staff. Children’s centres may find it hard to deliver services if they do not have the financial and staffing resources to meet needs. It may be that greater attention is needed to provide tailored services: making sure vulnerable mothers/families get directed or structured support at children’s centres or via specialist providers (such as mental health services, child psychologist, etc.) for the relatively small number of high-risk families. Centre staff often expressed concerns about their expertise and capacity to support such families. They may be better placed to support parenting as the positive effects identified on their impact on family outcomes such as the early Home Learning Environment (HLE), the organisation in homes and the parent-child relationship.”
“As a whole”, the report suggests that,
“…Children’s centres can have positive impacts especially on family functioning and parenting, and that children’s centres are highly valued by parents. They are not a universal panacea, however, and it is unlikely they can pick up and address complex social needs especially if there are major cuts to other public services that affect children and families.”
The research was conducted at 117 children’s centres in 2011 and 2013, many of which may have been affected by further cuts since it was done, and analysed the interviews of more than 2,600 parents who used them, in order to determine the impact the centres were having on families using the different types of service.
The existence of the report came to light days after the Prime Minister, David Cameron pledged better mental health and mentoring services in an “assault on poverty”. Yet, funding cuts have forced more than 700 to shut since he came into power in 2010.
Oxford University Professor Pam Sammons, one of the Principal Investigators who helped write the report, said its timing was “unfortunate”.
Saying further in The Mirror,
“We would have liked it to be available earlier because that’s when lots of councils were making decisions about their budget cuts.
“It does seem rather ironic that there’s an announcement now about families and parents being supported, but what will support them is children’s centres and they seem to be dwindling.”
Whilst in The Independent, she is report to have said,
“It’s sad that as findings emerge of the way in which children’s centres can have positive effects to help ameliorate some of the impact of social disadvantage, the services are being cut across the country.”
The Shadow Education Secretary, Lucy Powell, said the Government was “caught red-handed trying to bury bad news”.
Saying further in The Mirror,
“It’s no wonder Ministers have been trying to bury this report on Sure Start closures given the government’s woeful record.
“Despite David Cameron giving yet another speech on families this week, he has taken away support for families and left 700 fewer Sure Start centres.”
And in The Independent, she said,
“We’ve had nothing but broken promises from this Government on Sure Start. There are now 763 fewer centres since 2010 and services are withering on the vine in many areas, so it’s no wonder that ministers hid this report by releasing it with so many others just before Christmas.”
Department for Education (DfE) sources said the delay in publishing the report was due to a “large volume of work” around the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement but “we wanted to make sure it was published before the end of the year”.
With a DfE spokesperson saying,
“We want to see strong children’s centres across the country, offering a wide range of local, flexible services, tackling disadvantage, and helping all children fulfil their potential. That is why we invested more than £2bn in early intervention last year.
“A recent survey suggests more than a million families are frequently accessing children’s centres.
“Councils have a duty to ensure there are sufficient centres to meet local need, and are best placed to decide on provision in their communities.”