Elizabeth Truss was answering MPs’ questions during a one-off session of the Education Select Committee today.
Ms Truss told the committee that the role of children’s centres was to ‘provide early help.’
But MPs questioning the minister said that there was a lack of clarity around the definition of the core purpose of children’s centres and confusion about what children’s centres do.
The committee’s chair Graham Stuart MP challenged the minister, saying that according to the core purpose, children’s centres were about improving outcomes for young children, reducing inequality, and school readiness.
Ms Truss said that part of the problem had been that the inspection regime had been ‘out of step’.
Ofsted inspection had not been aligned to the core purpose and that inspection had been carried out by inspecting individual children’s centres.
The minister said that Ofsted was now moving to inspecting centres by looking at the overall provision and reach of centres by local authority area and would shortly be consulting on the issue.
However, those centres that do provide early education will continue to have individual early years inspections.
‘I see the primary role of children’s centres as providing early help to children and parents,’ she said.
Ms Truss said this was providing advice to parents on parenting, stay and play sessions and helping parents to understand how children develop.
But she agreed with the committee's request to look at the core purpose of children’s centres again ‘to make sure it’s clear’.
Ms Truss said that she did not see early education as the primary role of centres, but that centres were ‘a facilitator’, pointing parents to high-quality early education.
Asked whether children’s centres should be measured on whether they contribute to early education or not, the minister said, ‘No’.
She added that she did not think that it was relevant for children’s centres to have links with qualified teachers.
‘What we know is that the highest quality teacher-led early education is generally taking place in school nurseries. It’s the school-led system that is important for improving early education and childcare,’ she said.
The committee had asked the minister to consider re-instating the presumption against nursery school closures and fund them through the Dedicated Schools grant, given that 96 per cent of them offer good or outstanding provision.
However, Ms Truss said that to prioritise maintained nursery schools over nursery classes in schools would be unfair to the third of local authorities that do not have any nursery schools.
Commenting on the minister’s evidence to the committee, 4Children chief executive Anne Longfield said, ‘The minister said that she will look again at the core purpose of Children's Centres so we hope that this will present an opportunity to maximise their full potential and ensure that they continue to deliver for children and families.
‘4Children believes that there is an opportunity for Children’s Centres to be placed at the heart of children and family services in local areas. We would also see this as the time to embed Children’s Centres on the statute and ring fence funding for them in every area.’
Kate Mulley, director of public policy at Action for Children, the largest voluntary sector provider of children’s centres, said, 'The Government needs to remove barriers so that children’s centres can help youngsters most in need get the best possible start in life.
'Evidence shows that three out of four vulnerable children we worked with were better prepared to start school after help with their communication skills, physical and emotional development.
'But if children’s centres had access to local birth data, they could better identify and reach children and their work would go even further.'
The minister had been recalled to give evidence before the committee, after it criticised the Government for failing to give adequate answers to recommendations made by the committee in its report on Sure Start children’s centres.