When I think about what is happening to the Grove, the fantastic Sure Start children and family centre that our two-year-old daughter has attended happily for the past 14 months, I find myself coming close to tears.
Our situation seems to reflect the reality of serious cuts affecting state-funded children's centres, widely seen as a very worthwhile investment under the Labour Government but now subject to a largely unreported funding squeeze across England, despite coalition pledges last month to prioritise an increase in 'affordable childcare'.
Indeed, in our household, the notion that improving childcare is truly a ministerial priority is something of a bitter joke.
In May, we learned that the Grove, a state nursery serving a very ethnically diverse, economically disadvantaged area of Peckham and Camberwell in Southwark, south London, was to close its 'baby unit' for the up-to-twos after seven seemingly highly successful years.
In addition, the childcare facility for toddlers, hitherto open to all from 8.15am to 5.45pm for 48 weeks of the year, was being cut back to term-time only, with hours of 8.45am to 3.45pm. All children currently at the Grove would be offered places in the toddler unit, but in the future the toddler unit would cater exclusively for those two-year-olds who will qualify for 15 hours a week guaranteed Government funding, which from September will cover the poorest 20 per cent of homes, rising to 40 per cent in 2015.
Finally, the Grove is closing the breakfast and after-school clubs it has provided for the older children, which have been a great help for working families.
This is all affecting a centre which, according to its last Ofsted report in March last year, provided 'outstanding levels of care, guidance and support because the staff are very well-trained, knowledgeable and have the welfare and safety of families at the heart of all they do'.
There was, added the inspectors, 'a very strong community feel to this highly inclusive centre'. Visiting the Grove - which charges fees of £44 a day for nought to threes - for the first time shortly after Ofsted did, we found the facilities better than any local private provision for the very young: two outside play areas, healthy, chef-cooked meals every day and access to a range of support services such as speech therapy. 'Inclusive' certainly summed up the ethos, with children coming from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds.
And we have found that the staff have helped us with a variety of practical problems with childcare, from sleeping patterns to nutrition. I told staff the Grove had been one of the best things in our daughter's life since she turned one.
Caught up in the cuts
But the Grove seems to have been caught up in cutbacks affecting England's generally very well-regarded state nursery settings. Government figures show 401 children's centres, or 11 per cent of the total, closed or merged between April 2010 and November 2012, despite the current baby boom.
The central Government funding pot financing children's centres will reduce from £2.5bn in 2010-11 to £1.6bn in 2014-15, a Parliamentary report confirmed last month. That is a cut of 36 per cent, with early years budgets not protected in the way that school funding has been. Under the coalition, Sure Start ring fences have also been removed, tempting councils to reduce support in the face of the wider cuts to their budgets.
Last September, it was revealed how ministers were planning to at least part-fund their pledge for free nursery places for disadvantaged two-year-olds by taking hundreds of millions of pounds from the early intervention budget financing Sure Start. This helps to explain the cuts above.
In addition, a requirement under Labour for all Sure Start children's centres to provide childcare for birth-to-twos was scrapped by the coalition, leaving well-staffed and therefore relatively expensive facilities such as those at the Grove extra vulnerable.
Recent coalition changes were criticised by the normally cautious Ofsted earlier in the year, which said in evidence to the Commons education selection committee that the relaxation of the rule requiring childcare facilities for the youngest children, coupled with some Department for Education (DfE) deregulation on staffing, meant children's centres were no longer 'helping to reduce inequalities in children's readiness for school as well as they might'.
Early years provision has consistently received the best Ofsted ratings of any phase of England's education system, with children's centres often seen as beacons of excellence.
Southwark's own early years funding from Government was cut by £6.1 million, for 2013-14, with that Government pledge for two-year-olds - which will bring in an extra £6.3 million - seemingly the only means of plugging the gap.
Despite Southwark Council's budget as a whole being cut by £62 million in 2010-12, the outright closure of two other Southwark nurseries was avoided nine months ago, but only at the cost of staffing reductions across early years in the borough.
The head of a state nursery elsewhere in London told me recently, 'From our experience in our borough, it appears the plan is to cut anything "expensive" - ie maintained nursery schools or any provision not funded by the DfE via its 15-hours guarantee. The Government, I think, is intent on promoting cheaper private provision.'
Loss of universality
Surveying this scenario, it is hard to comprehend how a Government that says it wants to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children and to support working families is presiding over cuts to early years funding that seem so clearly to be likely to reduce the quality of provision.
Ministers might respond that they are cutting some universal services in order to focus provision on the disadvantaged. But this runs into two problems.
First, closing baby units outright will deprive vulnerable families as well as the better-off of much-needed childcare support. And second, there is a clear risk that the universality of services is suffering as provision gets pared back to serving the poor, with the consequent risk of stigmatisation.
This is a concern raised by organisations such as Barnardo's, Save the Children and the Early Childhood Forum in submissions to the select committee's inquiry into early years.
And the reality of it happening was reported recently in Nursery World, under the headline 'Children's centres move away from universal services to target the poorest', jointly authored by one of the most respected academics in the field, Professor Kathy Sylva.
As a fellow parent told me, 'The risk is that centres like this become just places for those who are struggling, and we lose the sense that somewhere like the Grove serves the whole community we have here.'
Implicit in the Grove's changes are the notion that they will allow the centre to concentrate more on families most needing help. This, of course, is a powerful argument, but still leaves me worrying about the less universal nature of what will be on offer.
Given the changes at the centre, working parents have had to try to find alternatives elsewhere, or to arrange childminding around the reduced provision at the Grove.
This seems to fly in the face of long-term economic rationality, since it stands to make it harder for mothers or fathers to return to work, a point made emphatically to me by some fellow parents, who could not believe the Government was serious about helping working families.
These are tough times, with tight budgets everywhere. But the National Audit Office recently highlighted a £1bn overspend by the DfE on changes to school structures through the academies scheme, while some 'free' schools have been lavishly funded.
High-quality early years care should be regarded as a national asset to be protected. If we cannot as a nation invest in and protect excellent child support for all from a young age, what are we doing?
Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist.
- Evaluation of children's centres in England: strand 3 - main report, www.gov.uk/government/publications/evaluation-of-childrens-centres-in- england-strand-3-delivery-of-family-services-by-childrens-centres
- 'Academic warns childcare reform will lower quality', www.nurseryworld.co.uk/article/1177203
- 'Quality care hangs in the balance', www.nurseryworld.co.uk/article/1182742.