Children's centres successfully targeting deprived families

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Children’s centres reached more than nine in ten of the neediest families in a year, shows new Government research.

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4Children's Carousel Children's Centre in Braintree, Essex

According to the latest ‘Evaluation of children’s centres in England’, on average over 90 per cent of families from deprived areas registered at a centre between 2012 and 2013.

The study, carried out by the University of Oxford, is based upon a national sample of 128 children's centres that are based in the 30 per cent most disadvantaged areas, along with online questionnaires from 72 local authorities and the 2011 census.

It comes as Ofsted is planning to inspect all children’s centres in each local authority area together, under changes to centre inspections. This will include looking at how local authorities support children’s centres and how centres work together. The inspectorate will consult on the new approach later in the year.

The evaluation found that local authorities are successfully targeting children’s centres towards families from more deprived areas, with a large majority of registered users coming from the centre’s ‘reach area’.

A sample of user postcodes demonstrated that on average 82 per cent of registered users came from a centre’s reach area.

A ‘reach area’ is defined as the geographical area served by a children’s centre.

The ‘reach areas’ had also seen a marked fall in child poverty levels in recent years, with the proportion of children in poverty falling from 30.6 per cent in 2006 to 27.3 per cent in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.

According to the report, the children’s centres typically had very large registration and user numbers. One centre had a registration base of more than 2,000 children. The number of centre users ranged from 250 to well over 1,000.

Most families registered at their local centre. In a few cases, registration was closely linked to the health visitor programme. In these areas, registrations were close to or above 100 per cent, judged against the population for children from birth to four in the 2011 census.

The majority of families chose to take-up services, with over half (55 per cent) with children from birth to four years old in a ‘reach area’ using centres over one year.

Data on the levels of use, provided by 60 centres, showed that 60 per cent of users visited their children’s centre five times or less over the year, while 13 per cent had contact with their centre 20 or more times.

The authors of the study found that patterns of use varied by centre and likely reflected the type of service offered. For example, centres offering childcare had an increased likeliness of having more heavy users.

Families with children under one-years-old were the largest group of users, with numbers tailing off once a child reached four plus.

Attempts to gather information on specific groups of users largely failed, as many local authorities did not collect or analyse this data or considered it to be unreliable, says the report. The exception was data on ethnic group. Overall, no major ethnic group appeared to be under-represented.

The authors say that the lack of data collection has implications for assessing how well centres target families of ‘high need’.

Education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss said, ‘It is great news to see that children’s centres are performing better than ever. Today’s figures prove that centres are successfully reaching out to those families most in need.

‘The Government’s clear that children’s centres have a vital role to play in making sure families get the help they need by offering a wide range of local, flexible services so they can choose what works best for their family. Today’s evidence shows that centres are doing just that – acting as a valuable lifeline for families up and down the country.’

Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, which operates children’s centres, said, ‘These findings strongly reflect 4Children’s own research, and confirm that children’s centres are making a hugely important difference to the lives of children and families across the country. Our most recent Children’s Centre Census found that one million families now use centres on a regular basis.

‘The task now is to maximise the potential of children’s centres to ensure they continue to deliver for children and families. In order to achieve this, 4Children is calling for all political parties to put children’s centres at the heart of their policies for children and families with continued and increased investment. We also want to see children’s centres expanded into Community Hubs, putting them in a position to co-ordinate a range of public services including health and education to prevent crisis and improve outcomes for the most vulnerable families.

‘It’s no secret that children’s centres are experiencing pressures on budgets right now, but this is the moment to make sure we all get behind children’s centres, and this includes investment from central and local government , to enable them to deliver on their enormous promise. It’s also important to recognise that Children’s Centres are part of their wider communities and therefore we are pleased that the new Ofsted inspection framework reflects this.’