The census, carried out by charity 4Children and based on the responses of 501 children's centre staff, reveals that for the first time more than a million families are using their local centre, including 320,000 disadvantaged families.
4Children said its 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' on local authorities.
The estimate is based on the two per cent of respondents that said they expect their setting to be closed within a year's time, which 4Children says if replicated throughout the country could mean around 60 centre closures across England.
According to the charity, this is a significant rise in relative terms from last year, when just 0.4 per cent of respondents expected their centre to close. It warns that, with even deeper cuts expected, the pressure will only intensify.
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.
In June, the Chancellor George Osborne announced that local authority funding will be cut by another ten per cent in 2015-16 as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.
In response to a question about how budgets and services have changed over the past year and how will they change over the next year, 66 per cent of respondents said that their centres are operating on a decreased budget compared to last year. A further 31 per cent said they expected to be providing fewer services in a year's time, up from 25 per cent in 2012. Fewer than five per cent of children's centre staff said their budgets had increased.
Of those who said they would be reducing services, 58 per cent were planning to cut stay-and-play sessions. Around a quarter of staff highlighted daycare as an area they planned to cut back on.
4Children said that the most significant observation from this year's census is that the proportion of staff reporting that their centres offer 21-50 childcare places has fallen significantly, a reverse trend to last year. In 2012, around a quarter of respondents were providing 21-50 places. In 2013, it has fallen to 15 per cent.
When asked what the planned changes were driven by, the majority of respondents (58 per cent) cited greater focus on targeted services. Just under a quarter (23 per cent) said reduced resources.
One comment from a centre manager who took part in the census said, 'We are given plates to spin with less budget and no increase in staff. Having said that, I have a wonderful team that will go the extra mile and we know we are making a positive difference to families' lives.'
Another said, 'Reduced budget, increasing demand for services, reduced local authority personnel and a more complex Ofsted inspection framework. How much more can we take?'
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 that had commenced during the past 12 months.
When asked how the children's centre workforce has changed over the past year, just over a third (37 per cent) said that the number of paid staff at their centre is decreasing.
Outreach workers, family support workers, childcare and early years professionals were listed as roles that have been cut.
In contrast, more than half of respondents (55 per cent) reported that they have seen an increase in the number of volunteers involved with their centre over the past year. On average, volunteers are providing 10 hours of support each week.
The census also sought to test the reality of the ambition of services to be joined up and examine how embedded partnership working has become across a range of different services and programmes.
4Children found mixed success in terms of partnership working. While the majority of children's centres are working with local health agencies, health visitor clinics are not being run through 19 per cent of centres.
Nearly half of centres also reported not being involved in the Government's Troubled Families programme. The main reason they gave was that they were not approached.
In light of the findings, 4Children makes a number of recommendations. They include:
- 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-old 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, (pictured), said, 'The past 12 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 centres.
'Rather than contemplating reductions and closures, we should instead seize the opportunity to make the most of centres' growing potential to help avert family crises.'
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 £2.2bn to £2.5bn in 2014-15.'