120 children's centres to close or under threat

Monday, December 15, 2014

The future of children's centres across the country is under threat with more than 120 set to close or earmarked for closure because of cuts to council budgets.

An investigation by Nursery World into the future of the centres has revealed that at least 26 are set to be deregistered in 2015/16, while a further 101 are at risk of closure.

The figures are based on information provided by 21 out of 37 local authorities that we contacted, including city and county councils, and all London boroughs. Also included is information gathered from some council budget consultations, available online.

Of the 37 councils that were contacted, eight said they had no plans to close or make any changes to children's centres within the next couple of years. They are: Buckinghamshire, Derby, Cumbria, where the children's centre budget has been protected until 2019, Greenwich, Plymouth, Sunderland, Tower Hamlets and West Sussex.

Wakefield Council confirmed to Nursery World that 11 of its 23 children's centres are to close, in a bid to make savings of £2.5m.

According to the council, 16 of its centres do not currently meet the Ofsted benchmark for engaging with 65 per cent of the children in their area.

In Swindon, seven centres will be shut. In Peterborough eight are no longer children's centres, but have been handed over to schools and childcare settings to be run as Children and Family centres.

Facing closure

A number of local authorities across the country are currently consulting on their draft budget proposals, many of which include plans to reduce their number of children's centres.

This includes Brent Council, which is considering closing ten of its 17 centres to make savings of £54m in the next two years.

Councillor Ruth Moher, Brent Council's cabinet member for children and young people, said, 'Like every local authority, Brent is continuing to face massive cuts in funding from central Government.

'This means that our budget consultation paper, which will be considered by Cabinet on Monday night (15 December), makes for some really distressing reading, with the closure of ten out of 17 children's centres in the borough, among the quite frankly unpalatable options proposed to try to make these savings.

'We are, however, still considering every possible option, including working with an external provider to manage our children's centres at a lower cost to the council, which could see them all remain open.'

Trafford Council is proposing to stop running four of its children's centres, while eight could be deregistered in Bury. Bury Council's consultation closed on Monday 8 December.

Walsall Council is expected to make a decision about the future of its five children's centres under threat of closure after its consultation closes on 5 January.

In Rotherham, 13 centres are at risk of being shut down. If the plans outlined in the council's consultation - now closed - are approved, it would leave nine centres, which would be clustered to form seven centres.

Northampton is looking at closing five centres and reducing the opening hours of some centres from next April. Its consultation runs until Friday 19 December.

Both Suffolk and Doncaster Councils have delayed a decision on the future of their centres. In the summer, Suffolk County Council put out proposals to close nine of its children centres from April 2015. Doncaster is considering closing three centres and moving the management of five settings to local schools.

Staffordshire County Council, which in September proposed to shut more than three-quarters (44) of its 54 children's centres next April, has yet to confirm whether the closures will go ahead.

In Birmingham, some early years services, possibly children's centres, could be cut, details of which are included in the city council's budget 2015 white paper, launched last week. The proposals will be consulted on during January and February.

Similarly, Oxfordshire County Council is currently reviewing all of the services it provides for children and families.

Cost-cutting

West Sussex County Council, which operates 44 centres, said it is actually looking to extend the use of its children and family centres in recognition of the important role they play in early intervention and prevention.

But a number of local authorities revealed they would be looking at putting in place measures to make running their centres more affordable.

Dorset County Council is looking to see how it can improve and modernise children's services, including children's centres.

A council spokesperson said, 'Like all local authorities in the country, we are having to change the way we do things to deal with ongoing financial pressures and ensure the services that we do provide are good, offer value for money and are sustainable.'

Leicestershire County Council is to consider bringing its centres and a number of services into 'one more cost-effective early help service designed to support families', but says it has no plans to close any children's centres.

City of York Council said it is looking at 'maximising the use of our nine children's centres and tailoring the services they provide for their local communities'.

Worcestershire is also considering changes to the delivery models of its centres.

In Norfolk, a Task and Finish Group is currently considering how children's centres might be developed. It is due to report its initial findings in January, with a final report in March setting out recommendations. No changes would be made until after 31 March 2016.

Devon County Council is to review the use of its children's centre buildings across Exeter in 2017 when the five-year contracts it has with voluntary sector organisations and one school to run centres expire.

After we went to press, Hackney council also confirmed that it has no plans to make any 'substantial changes' to children's centre services during 2015/16.

The picture this year

The move being considered by councils to shut some children's centres follows a number of closures over the course of 2014.

East Sussex County Council closed five of its children's centres in Hastings and St Leonards and Eastbourne, while Plymouth City Council brought together its 16 children's centres under six cluster areas. Four clusters were introduced in July and the other two in October.

In April, Kent County Council closed 12 of its 97 children's centres and reduced the opening hours of 20.

Also this year, Essex County Council closed three of its children's centres and turned seven into outreach centres.

Alison McGovern, shadow children and families minister, said, 'These are very worrying figures and could mean that many parents are suddenly faced with seeing childcare they rely on being withdrawn, potentially without a suitable alternative.

'Children's centres can be real centres of excellence, especially when they are part of a well-integrated system of childcare, education and health services.

'I understand how difficult councils are finding it under the cosh of unprecedented funding cuts from this Government, but I would urge councillors to consider very carefully whether children's centres closures are avoidable, especially where they will leave gaps in provision that could threaten childcare sufficiency, parents' ability to find high-quality, affordable and flexible childcare and their ability to return to work.'

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'Under this Government, a record number of parents – more than one million – are using children's centres and this number has actually increased since last year. We are also investing £5million in a series of pilots to use children’s centres to provide employment support and training for parents.

'However, we recognise that local councils are best placed to decide on provision in their communities and we are committed to giving them the freedom to target their resources where most appropriate.

'High quality early education is vital and we want to see a strong network of children's centres in place across the country, giving families access to a wide range of local services. As part of our plan for education, we have increased funding for early intervention to £2.5 billion to help local authorities meet the needs of their communities.'

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