Early years experts spark debate about future of children's centres

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Early years experts and organisations are calling for a national debate on how children’s centres provide vital support for children and families.

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Early years experts and organisations are calling for a national debate on the future of children's centres

As part of this, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) has launched a survey for practitioners, families and those in the sector to share their views on what they value most about children’s centres and what their future purpose should be.

Findings from the survey, which closes on 10 January 2014, will be used to inform NCB’s future policy activity on children’s centres.

It comes as local authorities across the country are closing or preparing to close children’s centres or significantly reduce their services.

In May, the education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss revealed that at the end of April 2013, there were 3,116 Sure Start children’s centres in England. The same information, provided by local authorities, showed that more than 400 centres closed between April 2010 and 2013.

The National Children’s Bureau has also published a series of essays by early years experts and academics, which calls for all political parties to set out a clearer vision of priorities for children’s centres.

The authors of the essays include Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, Naomi Eisenstadt, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and Professor Edward Melhuish, director of the institute for the study of children, families and social issues at Birkbeck, University of London.

The essays raise key questions about the role of children’s centres, such as how to work with children and parents, how to balance providing a universal service with targeting the most needy, and the age at which interventions are the most effective, all questions that the national debate will aim to answer.

Dr Hilary Emery, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said, 'Children’s centres provide a wide range of important services under one roof: from childcare to health screening, reaching out to marginalised children and their parents. With such a wide remit it is vital we have a clear understanding of their core purpose, especially with local authority budgets being squeezed and a hollowing out of the services on offer. We need a better vision of priorities and precise objectives in mind, otherwise we risk providing ineffective support for children and allowing outcomes to drift.'

Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, said, ‘Children’s centres form the bedrock of our ability to reach out to children and families, deliver early help and bring communities together. This is achieved through support and guidance for those who most need it.

‘There is a great deal of highly effective and innovative work taking place through the children’s centre system. In a rebalanced economy, there must be a place for effective, resourced public services that protect children and enable families and communities to be resilient through social and economic pain and to thrive in the long-term.’

‘Children’s centres have the capacity to serve as catalysts for energising the system. Our public services are vital, they help us to achieve positive outcomes for children we could not achieve alone.’

Labour’s shadow minister for childcare and children Lucy Powell MP said, 'Labour is the party of early years and Sure Start and I welcome this debate on the importance of children’s centres. 

'Children’s centres are a vital part of the early intervention framework to support families and give children the best start in life, yet this Government has cut funding and we’re seeing fewer services and reduced opening hours.'

  • The NCB survey closes on 10 January.
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