MPs say it is not clear 'who Sure Start children's centres are for'

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The Government must take early years provision more seriously with a long-term vision, a cross-party group of MPs warns today, if ministers really want to close the attainment gap between poor children and their peers.

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Children's centres are popular with parents and well-used, but lack a long-term Government plan for their future

A major report into Sure Start children’s centres by the House of Commons Education Select Committee says that although centres are popular and used by parents it is not clear what services children’s centres should offer and who they are for.

It identifies three different types of children’s centres – those based around nursery schools, linked to schools, or run as family centres.

MPs propose using this tripartite model as a way of clarifying policy around children’s centres.

The report says that children’s centres should not be closed without a proper consultation and consideration of alternative options, and it should be up to local authorities to decide how best to organise and commission services.

Universal services also play a significant role in encouraging families into children’s centres, it says.

It calls on the Government to put in place a clear strategy for a highly-qualified workforce with equal pay and conditions between early years teachers and teachers in primary schools and says that the requirement for every centre to have a link with a qualified teacher should be reinstated.

Other key points from the report include:

  • The core purpose of children’s centres should be reviewed to focus on achievable outcomes and to be clear about whether centres should prioritise services for children or parents;
  • The Government should develop a new national outcomes framework to increase the accountability of each centre;
  • Better procedures for passing on information between children’s centres and nurseries and schools;
  • Local authorities should monitor availability of two-year-old places in good and outstanding settings and more flexibility for how LAs use the two-year-old funding to offer direct support to families, as well as early education for the child;
  • DfE should set out a strategy for ensuring maintained nursery schools survive and encourage them to develop with children’s centres.

The committee’s chair Graham Stuart MP said, ‘Education is too important to wait until children reach school age. The Government needs to prove that it is serious about closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children by setting out coherent, long-term thinking on early years and children’s centres. 

‘Ministers should start by making clear the Government’s strategy for realising its aspiration to put in place a highly qualified workforce with equal pay and status between early years teachers and those in primary schools.’

He added, ‘The Government also needs to be clear what children’s centres should be offering and who they are for. We identified three different types of centres but this is not reflected in current policy. We also found that the stated core purpose is far too vague and broad. The core purpose needs to focus on achievable outcomes and reflect the difference between centres, especially where they do not offer early education or childcare.’

The report also calls for stronger accountability for how well individual centres are doing and for how effectively local authorities use centres to improve outcomes for children in their areas.

Mr Stuart added, ‘We also recognise that funding pressures mean some targeting of services is inevitable but we believe all families should be able to access the services they need and that universal services of some sort play a significant part in encouraging families to engage in the first place.’

Commenting on the report, Lucy Powell MP, Labour’s shadow minister for childcare and children, said it was ‘a devastating verdict on an out of touch Government with no strategy or vision for children and the early years.

‘Families most in need are going without support in those vital early months and years as a result of David Cameron’s broken promise that has meant there are 578 fewer Sure Start centres since 2010. Families trying to make ends meet need the support offered by children’s centres more than ever and the Government needs to act as a matter of urgency.’

Sector reaction

‘We welcome the way the committee has put the child back at the centre of the agenda in making recommendations for the future. We particularly welcome the recommendations to ensure every centre is linked to a qualified teacher, and to develop a strategy for creating parity of pay and status for early years teachers.  

'As the report points out, childcare is not the same as early childhood education, and it is high quality education that delivers improved outcomes for children. The report recognises the key role that maintained nursery schools can play in building quality in the sector and we call on Government to implement the recommendation for an explicit strategy to ensure the survival of nursery schools. We would also echo the call for stability in early years policy. ‘

 Beatrice Merrick, chief executive, Early Education


'We support the committee’s recommendation that further clarity is needed to develop a clearer understanding of the core purpose for children’s centres, which is focused on delivering achievable outcomes for children and families, especially the most vulnerable. A more focused vision of priorities can go some way to mitigating the effects of local authority budget cuts, and will enable children’s centres to continue providing a wide range of vital services and outreach support.'

 The National Children’s Bureau

 

‘Sure Start Children's Centres are even more vital to the wellbeing, education and development of young children and their families while parents are suffering benefit cuts and uncertainty in their employment. If the Government is serious about reducing the gaps between the most vulnerable and those better off, then it must take this report seriously.

‘While it’s vital to retain services for families that need them, it’s equally important that those services are of high quality. This means investing in qualified teachers, good quality professional development and training for all staff, as well as retaining nursery schools which are shown to do an excellent job. These are long term commitments, which are needed if we are to make a difference for the most vulnerable young children and their families.’

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

 

‘This report quite rightly states the importance of early years education and highlights the current lack of a coherent vision.

‘Children’s centres are critical resources for all local parents and particularly for first-time parents, lone parents and parents who are struggling. Appropriate funding commitments are needed from Government to ensure these centres are sustainable and can provide the range of services needed. Quality will depend on the ability to employ and retain well-qualified staff to run the services.

‘The select committee quite rightly calls upon Government to restore the need for every centre to have links with a qualified teacher. If we want our youngest children to get the best start in life, we need a coherent approach to childcare and to early years education and qualified teachers must be at the heart of a developmentally appropriate early years education. 

The Government’s decisions on funding will be the deciding factor in whether children’s centres can fulfil the promise of putting early intervention and multi-agency working between different professions into real outcomes.’

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers


‘This report hits the nail right on the head and backs up what families have been telling us around the country  – children’s centres are essential for them and their children and they must be seen as a priority.

“To reduce the impact of disadvantage on children and make sure every child has the best possible start in life, we must ‘get serious’ about the early years and commit to a long term, ambitious vision for children’s centres. In demanding better integration between service providers and improved recognition for the early years workforce, this report adds credible weight to the case for children’s centres becoming a one-stop shop and community cornerstone where all families can find the help they need to flourish.’

Anne Longfield, chief executive, 4Children