Action for Children, which runs more than 200 children’s centres, is urging centres to retain ‘open access services’, such as stay and play, particularly for expectant parents, babies and toddlers.
It says that faced with stretched resources centres are ‘increasingly scaling back’ services open to all families and activities for parents, in favour of programmes targeting higher need, disadvantaged families.
But the charity warns that that the move to targeted work is putting the ability of children’s centres to meet a range of families and identify problems early at risk.
The charity argues that offering open access sessions like stay and play where children from different social backgrounds can mix enhances children’s development.
Activities like these also ‘de-stigmatise children’s centres and act against driving away parents and children who stand to benefit from the support available,’ the report says.
The charity's paper, the Evolution of Children's Centres, says centres should be the permanent base for health visitors and be formally linked to providers offering the free early education entitlement.
Action for Children received 454 responses to an online survey carried out in 249 children's centres across England in March this year.
The findings form the basis for a series of policy briefings about the issues centres face ahead of the Government’s consultation into their future.
The survey reveals that staff have longterm concerns about the future of centres, with 48 per cent of children's centre workers believing that children's centres will not be in a better position to help children and families in five years' time.
Kate Mulley, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said, ‘The right support for children in the early years can make a huge, positive difference to their life chances.
‘We can’t lose sight of that even when there are such difficult decisions to be made around the funding and structure of public services.
‘To reinvigorate children’s centres the Government should develop a framework that ensures children reach important milestones by age five while leaving flexibility for local authorities to do this in the way that best suits parents in their area and makes the best use of resources. Otherwise the good work that centres do is at risk of falling by the wayside.’
The charity's recommendations include:
- local authorities should retain a minimum level of open access provision in children’s centres by prioritising services all families can access in the foundation years, particularly from the antenatal period to two-and- a half;
- use children’s centres as a hub for antenatal support, with health visitors using them as a permanent base;
- link children’s centres with providers of the free early education entitlement for two, three and four-years-olds;
- ensure that records and information is shared between different professionals.
Kate Mulley added, ‘Parents should be given a voice in determining where and when services are offered so that more families make use of them.
‘Keeping children’s centres open to all parents of young children means more families will get help early with the issues they face, before they become problems that affect children’s development.’
- Read the Beyond the Building briefings here