According to the Children’s Centre Census 2013, carried out by charity 4Children, for the first time over a million families are using their local children’s centre, including 320,000 disadvantaged families.
4Children said their data indicates that 1,090,000 families are using children's centres, up from 980,000 in the 2012 census, representing an 11 per cent increase over the past year.
Despite this, the charity estimates that around 60 centres could close over the next 12 months due to ‘acute financial pressures’ placed on local authorities.
The census, based on the responses of 501 children’s centre staff, found that two per cent expect their setting to be closed within a year’s time.
If extrapolated nationally, 4Children warns this could mean around 60 centre closures over the next year.
A further 66 per cent of respondents said that their centres are operating on a decreased budget compared to last year and 31 per cent expected to be providing fewer services in a year’s time.
Of those who said they would be reducing services, 58 per cent were planning to cut stay and play. Around a quarter of staff highlighted daycare as an area they planned to cut back on.
The charity 4Children says it is unsurprising that respondents said their centres would be operating with a decreased budget in the forthcoming year given that by 2014-15, the available budget for local authority children’s services will have fallen by more than a third since the start of the decade.
Despite ongoing financial pressures on centres, the census found that just 16 per cent of respondents reported that their setting has started charging for services that were previously free. Only three per cent said their centre charged for all new services which had commenced during the last 12 months.
The census also shows mixed success in terms of partnership working. While the majority of children’s centres are working with local health agencies, it found that health visitor clinics are not being run through 19 per cent of centres.
Nearly 50 per cent of centres also reported not being involved in the Government’s Troubled Families programme.The main reason they gave for this was that they weren’t approached by their local team.
In light of the findings, 4Children makes a number of recommendations, including:
- Putting children’s centres at the heart of local authorities and health and well-being boards’ early intervention and preventative strategies.
- Government commitment to additional investment to children’s centre budgets by extending the pupil premium to early years.
- Ensuring children’s Centres maintain a base of universal provision.
- Children’s centres playing a crucial role in the delivery of the free two-year-olds places.
- Maximising the potential role of children’s centres in the delivery of the local Troubled Families programme.
- Breaking down barriers that prevent third sector organisations from running children’s centres.
- Better evaluation of the work children’s centres do.
Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, said, ‘The past twelve months have seen existing pressures on families mounting. Our census shows that more and more families, particularly those in the greatest need, are turning to children’s centres to help pull them through these tough times.
‘Local authorities are under extreme financial pressure to make tough decisions, but the long-term social and financial rewards will come with filling up, not closing down these crucial centres.
‘Rather than contemplating reductions and closures, we should instead seize the opportunity to make the most of centre’s growing potential to help avert family crises. This means improving the way in which they pool resources and budgets with local partners, making additional investment, and committing wholeheartedly to keeping their doors open to families of all backgrounds.’
Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow minister for children, said, ‘This report paints a stark picture of the future for children's centres and for the families that rely on them. Despite David Cameron's promise to protect Sure Start before the last election there are now 566 fewer children's centres serving our communities.
‘Mr Cameron’s cost of living crisis is putting more and more pressure on family life and family budgets. And children's centres are an essential part of the web of support services available to help families. Labour's primary childcare guarantee and the extension of free childcare for working parents from 15 to 25 hours will be a real boost for families feeling the pinch and struggling to balance work and family life.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'The number of families using children’s centres is a real testament to their success. Children’s centres play a vital role in supporting families with young children, particularly the most disadvantaged, and we have made it clear that all local authorities must provide high quality services through their centres to improve outcomes for these families.
'There are more than 3,000 Sure Start centres in England and we have increased funding for early intervention services from £2.2 billion to £2.5 billion in 2014-15, ensuring the future of centres even during these difficult times.
'The survey rightly highlights the importance of joint working between education and health professionals, with some children centres already offering birth registration and incorporating the use of health visitors. The introduction of the two and a half year old check, combining both health and education, will make sure that centres are able to offer an even more important and valuable service to families in the future.'