The All Party Parliamentary Group for Sure Start calls for health visitors, midwives and children’s centres to be based together ‘under one roof’, for families before and after birth, or where this is not possible for there to be a single service.
The report, published today following a year-long inquiry into the future of children’s centres, says that failure to unite these services is damaging support for local families and putting children’s centres at risk of closure.
Pooling budgets would also improve the service for parents, particularly early intervention, the MPs say.
Best practice for a Sure Start: The way forward for children’s centres makes a range of recommendations, including that children’s centres must continue to play a crucial role in childcare, either through direct provision or by working with local providers, actively supporting childminders to achieve high quality provision and acting as hubs for childcare information for parents.
The report also suggests that in future children’s centres might want to consider taking on the role of childminder agencies, in light of the plans proposed in the Children and Families Bill.
Children’s centres should also focus more of their work on supporting families from pregnancy until children are two, in recognition of the growing research evidence that this is a crucial time in child development, the report says.
It adds that children’s centres will be crucial to ensuring that eligible parents take up the offer of 15 hours of free childcare.
Chair of the APPG, Andrea Leadsom MP, said, ‘Whitehall Departments have got to stop operating in silos; they must see that through joined up working they could save significant amounts of money. Pooling the budgets of midwives, health visitors and children’s centres would achieve just that. It would also have the important side effect of encouraging data sharing between practitioners – something which is key to supporting new families, but all too often is not happening.’
The registration of births should also take place in children’s centres with health services and children’s centres sharing data on births.
The report includes new research by the Department for Education into the potential benefits of registering births at children's centres and calls for a national roll out.
The report highlights the importance of play in children’s development, calling for the retention of open access play sessions in centres, because they provide stimulating and safe play environments for children. It also says that centre staff should support parents during stay and play sessions to play with their children in ways that encourage their development, ‘emphasising the benefits of talking to children and affectionate praise.’
Vice chair Sharon Hodgson MP said, ‘What we've heard during this inquiry is that children’s centres work best when they bring together all the professionals and programmes which a family might come into contact with in the early years, and work hard to bring all families in their area into the centre. There are some great examples of this across the country, but also too many areas where it still isn't happening, so the Government needs to take the lead on ensuring that it does.’
Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, which provides the secretariat for the APPG, said, ‘In many areas children’s centres have become central to providing support to families across the country and are developing into real hubs where parents can access early education, family support and health services.
‘However where health in particular are not located within children’s centres it is a waste of public money and puts centres at risk of closure. Local services need to be delivered in a joined up way to make the best use of public resources and provide families with the help they need to flourish.’