The report by the Children’s Society, ‘Breaking barriers’, highlights a number of constraints for both parents and practitioners exacerbated by budget cuts that it says are leaving too many deprived families and children without key support.
It goes on to say that as a consequence of cuts to the early intervention grant since 2010, which will be halved in real terms from £3bn to £1.5bn in 2015, many children’s centres are inevitably under extreme financial pressure.
The report, based on a survey of 170 families with children up to five years old who do not use children’s centres, and consultations with children’s centre staff and users, also highlights a number of barriers preventing parents from accessing centres and the struggles staff face in engaging with these families.
More than four in ten parents surveyed said they had never used a children’s centre because they had not heard of the service, and nearly three quarters were not aware of what services were provided by their local children’s centre.
Among the families surveyed, awareness of services was affected by a number of factors such as gender and speaking English as a second language.
Children’s centre staff in particularly ethnically diverse areas said they often find it difficult to engage with families who speak English as a second language and that it can be costly to provide support in different languages.
Other reasons given by parents for not using children’s centres were problems with transport, work commitments and not feeling welcome.
Practitioners who were consulted by the Children’s Society also reported difficulties in identifying and reaching out to disadvantaged families in their local area.
The two main issues practitioners highlighted were a lack of access to relevant data on these families and problems with partnership working between local agencies and children’s centres.
Staff in a children’s centre in the South West of England told the charity that in their area police kept health visitors and schools informed of local domestic violence incidents, however this information was not provided to children’s centres. This meant that the centre was not able to identify why some parents may have stopped using the centre and which families and children may need targeted additional support.
Other practitioners were particularly concerned that they were not able to access information about pregnant women or live birth data. This was usually due to issues with gaining permission from local health services.
The report concludes that given the reduction of available funding, there is more pressure on children’s centres to use the funding they have in a cost-effective way.
It goes on to argue that regardless of how effectively children’s centres use the support available to them, funding reductions make it much harder for services to deliver effective support, especially to those families that are hardest to reach, and so incur the highest costs.
Along with setting out steps to help children’s centre staff engage with families, the report makes a number of recommendations. They include:
- no further cuts in funding for early intervention services for children and families;
- ring-fencing funding for children’s centres so there is adequate provision to support young children and their families;
- for the Government to pilot the introduction of registering births in children’s centres;
- for local authorities to consult with their children’s centres to establish whether a review of reach areas is needed to ensure that these areas are better aligned to supporting disadvantaged families;
- giving children’s centres access to a named health visitor who can provide advice.
Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said, ‘Children’s centres do vital work supporting some of this country’s most vulnerable families. Yet our report outlines deeply concerning funding cuts and a catalogue of barriers which are preventing too many of the families that need them most from using these crucial services.
‘We know that prevention now is better than struggling with these problems down the line, and can be cheaper in the long run.
‘We urge the Government to make no further cuts in funding for key early intervention services. Money should be ring-fenced for children’s centres to make sure these critical services are protected.’