Children’s Centres: a Community Resource in Decline

Earlier in the year a parliamentary petition entitled, “Provide additional funding to councils to protect Children’s Centres”.was circulated. The petition was calling for action to address the serious decline in the number of Children’s Centres, since 2010 over a third have closed. Austerity has caused a significant reduction in Government funding to local authorities and this acute financial pressures on local authorities has meant many Children’s Centres have either closed or the services they are able to provide have been drastically reduced.

 

Children’s Centres are intended to be a local resource, bringing together early childhood services into the heart of the community to offer a wide range of services for all children up to the age of 5 & their families. In addition they have an added focus to support the most vulnerable and needy families. In 2010 there were 3,500 Children’s Centres but since then as many as 1000 gave closed.

 

The closure of so many Children’s Centres is not good news for the under-3s and their families. The vital first three years of a child’s life, when a secure attachment is achieved through consistent loving care by their primary care giver (usually the mother) is largely ignored by Government. The first three years is the period when brain development is at its most rapid and provides a firm foundation for developing resilience and good emotional, physical and mental health for the rest of childhood and through into adulthood.

 

Responding to the Petition Government said that

  • ‘local authorities were best placed to understand local needs and provide appropriate services for young children and their families‘. but how do local authorities do this when their funding has been drastically cut by central government?
  • ‘government has invested significant funds in childcare and intend to increase this funding but this investment is to provide free childcare to encourage mothers with young children into the workforce and not for the range of services provided by Children’s Centres.

 

Government quoted figures identifying the investment already in place and their future planned investment:-

  • a massive expansion of childcare support for 2, 3 and 4 year olds. Parents on Universal Credit can also now claim back up to 85% of childcare costs.”
  • This government is investing in the early years. By 2020 we will be spending around £6 billion on our free early years entitlements, tax-free childcare and childcare support .”

But providing free childcare to get mothers into the workforce is no substitute for the community based services that were the aspiration for Children’s Centres with services available for all under-fives and their families. A report on Children’s Centres identified the majority of users were families with children under 1. Government childcare policy has failed to recognise this and as a result many families with very young children have lost the only local support services available to them.

 

At present one in four people experience mental health problems in their lifetime, proper investment and support for families with very young children would prevent the growing increase in mental health problems. Government investment in services provided through well resourced Children’s centres would promote infant mental health and reduce expenditure on adult mental illness and its consequences. So why are is government allowing their closure.

 

The establishment of 3,500 Children’s Centres by 2010 was described as one of the most

ambitious government public health initiatives in decades. It was recognised that this was a long term programme with the benefits needing to be evaluated over time. If the Government had continued to support local authorities with adequate ring-fenced funding for Children’s Centres during the years of austerity it would show that they were genuinely committed to supporting the needs of all families and young children, rather than just providing subsidise childcare to enable mothers to return to work, leaving their children with another carer.

 

A report on Children’s Centres in 2010 2 stated that it would be catastrophic if short term financial pressures on the service jeopardised the chances of realising and evaluating the long term gains for children & community.

 

But this is what has happened and continues.  An opportunity missed?

 

1 Nursery World 12 June 2014
2 House of Commons   Children, Schools & Families Committee  – Sure Start Children’s
   Centres fifth Report Vol 1  March 2010