While many local authorities argue that they have no choice but to close children's centres as they attempt to plug gaps in their funding caused by the harshest Government cuts for decades, advocates for intergenerational practice argue that there is another way.
Campaigners such as Denise Burke, co-founder of the social enterprise United for All Ages, believe that opening up children's centres to different age groups could help to save them from the axe along with other much valued services such as libraries, community centres and youth clubs, and to promote the social cohesion outlined in David Cameron's vision for the Big Society.
Ms Burke explains, 'When you share sites, you only have to fund the maintenance and management of one building, you don't have to maintain lots of different buildings. It's more efficient. We are hearing that lots of local authorities are closing their children's centres while others are closing their libraries. But there is no reason why libraries and children's centres can't operate from the same buildings and complement each other.'
Intergenerational practice aims to bridge the age gap by sharing activities with older members of the community. Its supporters believe that it helps to bring communities together and promote greater respect between generations.
In her former role as head of childcare at the London Development Agency, Ms Burke helped to fund the Acacia centre, in the London Borough of Merton, which was England's first purpose-built intergenerational setting. It includes a children's centre, arts, crafts and drama sessions, a variety of sports and games and services such as IT facilities and training for both young and old people.
Ms Burke has since helped to develop St Raphael's Intergenerational and Children's Centre in the London Borough of Brent, another purpose-built setting on the site of an old community centre.
'The social benefits of intergenerational practice are obvious,' she says. 'It lifts fear between generations within a community and it utilises the wealth of knowledge that older people have.'
Another early years organisation that is aiming to widen its reach by offering activities to different age groups is the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF).
Chief executive June O'Sullivan says she is passionate about the benefits of intergenerational practice, both as a way of getting the community to engage and 'buy in' to their local children's centre, and also as a means of promoting social cohesion.
She says, 'We have always believed that you can't achieve anything without proper community engagement, but it was the level of loneliness that people experience in London that really prompted my interest in widening our services to include different age groups.
'We now run activities such as Stitch and Bitch knitting groups, where people of all ages come to knit and meet other people. Another group activity we ran is called Pimp My Ride - we got some older men in their forties to teach some local children and teenagers how to fix our minibus. The children got to learn mechanical skills and had the chance to talk to men who were older and wiser and could give them advice.'
LEYF has also started working with Time Banking UK, an organisation that aims to bring communities together by helping people to exchange their skills.
Ms O'Sullivan believes that the benefits of intergenerational practice are far-reaching and not just a means of saving money.
She says, 'Children's centres should not just be for families with children aged from birth to five, because it is too limiting. Families don't stop when their children are five - they still need support when their children become teenagers, and they have concerns over things like gangs, for example.
'Children's centres should be shared spaces and they should be used more effectively. It's about changing attitudes and trying to get people to think in a different way. We don't want people growing up in these lonely, isolated places.'
NO EASY TASK
Ms O'Sullivan's views are supported by research published in November by the Centre for Social Justice, which found that almost one in ten people aged 65 and over feel lonely and that the number of older people in the UK is expected to soar by 1.7m over the next 20 years.
But while the arguments in support of intergenerational practice seem convincing, some experts believe that it is not necessarily a straightforward task to convert children's centres into intergenerational settings.
Alan Hatton-Yeo, chief executive of the Beth Johnson Foundation and the Centre for Intergenerational Practice, says, 'Taking a children's centre and trying to make it something else is more difficult than it may seem. Some children's centres are very unwelcoming spaces for older people. Often there is a small lobby with a hatch on one side - then you have to make contact with someone before you can go in the building or not because of the risk to the children and all the regulation.
'Also, there is a need for crosstraining. People are trained to be specialists and to work with a particular group. If you are trained to work with small children, you are not necessarily going to be comfortable working with adults. It requires different skills than working with a homogenous group. I would like to see a national programme for youth workers so they can be comfortable working with intergenerational groups.'
Ms Burke thinks that the main barrier to intergenerational working is the need for organisations and local authority departments to work together and share funding streams.
'Local authorities departments typically work in silo,' she says. 'Working with shared sites means they have to pool pots of funding and get used to working with other departments. The same problems come up when trying to get voluntary organisations to work together'.
But she believes that these challenges are far from insurmountable. 'These are hurdles that should be easy to overcome - it's about communication and relationship building.'
June O'Sullivan thinks that one of the biggest challenges to overcome is the mindset of key decision-makers.
She says, 'People in positions of power hide behind things like health and safety and CRB checks, the view that "you can't do this unless you have that". Local authorities can get too hooked up with processes, and we need to tackle that. It's entirely about attitude and showing that it's possible. For example, there is a choir that uses one of our settings on a Monday evening. We know that they will not do any harm. It is an issue of trust - we need to become more trusting.'
While the Government has talked about wanting a greater role for grandparents, and its goal of fixing what it calls 'Broken Britain', it has not publicly voiced any support for the concept of intergenerational practice or hinted that it may be part of the Big Society vision.
'It would be great if there could be some encouragement from central Government,' says Ms Burke. 'The Acacia setting is currently evaluating its intergenerational practice, so perhaps when the evaluation is published we will see more recognition of it.
'What we need is for someone within the cabinet to understand the benefits and to take the lead. It's something that needs a champion within the local authority. There is a lot of talk about the Big Society and this is one version of it. We need to take the initiative now - we are already losing resources like children's centres and libraries, and once they are gone we will not be able to get them back.'
Mr Hatton-Yeo is also hopeful that the Government will recognise how intergenerational working is one way of promoting the Big Society. He says, 'There are very strong arguments for local authorities to work in an intergenerational way and to share resources. It makes sense, if you are building a new resource, to plan it for multiple use rather than a single use. It's financially more viable, but it needs a different approach - how to engage with the whole community rather than part of the community.
'I am hopeful that the Government will invest in intergenerational practice, as there does seem to be much stronger recognition of the role of grandparents, and the coalition Government clearly realises the importance of the extended family.'
However, June O'Sullivan is pessimistic about the prospect of the Government backing up its Big Society plans with any financial investment.
'We applied for a grant of around £70,000 from the Department of Education to explore intergenerational practice,' she says, 'and we did not get that funding. The Government says it wants things done differently, but it gives money to organisations that are going to be carrying on with the same approach. I think there is a real lack of vision with the DfE. Building up intergenerational practice requires innovation and I just do not feel that we are seeing this from the Government.'
St Raphael's Intergenerational and Children's Centre, in Wembley, north-west London (pictured), is located within an isolated community, cut off by the North Circular Road. The setting is based on the site of a former community centre and was redeveloped in 2009 to include a children's centre, library and reception area.
The setting has 600 children aged from birth to five within its reach and also has 28 older people who regularly visit to take part in activities including cookery classes, book clubs, IT workshops and garden projects.
'The children's centre took away the community centre building and so it was extremely important to find out what the local community wanted from the setting,' says Denise Burke. 'We invited local people and community representatives to meet with us to try to understand how they wanted to use the building, with the proviso that it was being redeveloped with children's centre funding. There were some challenges - for example, some people wanted to use the centre as they had when it was a community centre and they had been able to hire it out for the afternoon.
'However, from the outset the community was very engaged. The library is also a great way of bringing people into the centre, as there is no other library within the local vicinity.'
United for all Ages have launched an awards scheme to celebrate excellence in intergenerational practice. Visit www.unitedforallages.com