Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt’s plans to ‘save Sure Start’ would reverse the coalition Government’s decision in 2010 to remove the requirement for centres in disadvantaged areas to offer childcare.
Mr Hunt, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said, ‘It is a scandal that these brilliant community assets are being mothballed or even closed at a time when parents are crying out for decent childcare in their communities.
‘We will not succeed as country unless we ensure every child has a decent start in life.’
Labour claims that there have been cuts to opening hours, services and staff in children’s centres since 2010. It also calculates that 38,000 more childcare places will be lost before the end of the next Parliament, if they continue to fall at the current rate.
Mr Hunt said, ‘We will not succeed as a country if we waste resources by allowing Sure Start centres to be idle, empty or even close.
‘So we’re going to put the lights back on, get the kids back in and restore the founding purpose of Sure Start.
‘Our plan to save Sure Start will place local authorities under a legal obligation to provide access to childcare at these centres - along with the power to do it by opening up the doors to local providers desperate for good premises like these.
‘This plan won’t cost money, it is purely a question of political will and leadership. The Government seems content to sit back and let Sure Start wither away. If the Tories win a second term, I fear Sure Start will disappear in many parts of our country and one of the great progressive programmes will be lost to the next generation. Labour created Sure Start. Labour cares about Sure Start. Labor will save Sure Start.’
The Pre-school Learning Alliance broadly welcomed the plans, but highlighted ongoing issues of under-funding of free entitlement places.
Chief executive Neil Leitch said, ‘It’s vital that all children, regardless of background, have access to high-quality childcare and so we broadly welcome plans to increase the availability of childcare places through Sure Start children’s centres. However, it would be short-sighted to suggest that such an initiative would not require additional funding from Government.
‘Research has shown that the free entitlement offers for two-, three- and four-year-olds are already substantially underfunded. As such, this longstanding issue would need to be tackled before any requirement on children’s centres to deliver childcare could be imposed.
‘It’s also important to remember that children’s centres offer more than just childcare – they are a vital source of information, advice and support for parents and families. Any plan to expand the use of children’s centres would therefore need to take in account the need for adequate funding not only for high-quality childcare provision, but also the improvement and sustainable delivery of family information services.’
Chief executive of 4Children Anne Longfield said, ‘Childcare is one of the biggest financial and logistical challenges for many parents - we know that 1 in 5 parents paying for childcare are considering giving up their job or reducing their hours as a result of the financial strain.
‘With over 3,000 Children’s Centres across the country, and a third telling us they have space to provide more childcare, there is a huge untapped resource which has the potential to both support parents with the challenges of childcare and give children the best start in life.’
The National Day Nurseries Association also highlighted 'untapped capacity', which it estimated was running at an average of 27 per cent of places in private, voluntary and independent nurseries across England.
Chief Executive Purnima Tanuku said, 'We estimate there are 190,000 empty places in private and voluntary nurseries across the country, including areas of disadvantage, mostly rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.
'One of the biggest barriers to opening up these places, is that funding for 15 hours of free nursery education places falls short of costs: 85 per cent have a shortfall which on average is £800 per three or four year old child per year in England.
'The next Government should work with all childcare sectors to resolve chronic funding shortfalls and open up places in areas of disadvantage.'
Kate Mulley, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, which runs more than 200 children’s centres, said, ‘We know from our experience that children’s centres are a vital service for local communities because they provide parents with an accessible and welcoming place to find support for problems before they become crises.
‘Centres are ideally placed to deliver range of services for families, including childcare. As decisions are made about their future, the focus must remain on quality provision that enables children to reach their potential.’
The number of actual closures to Sure Start children’s centres is a matter of contention between the parties.
Labour claims there are 720 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010 and that many are running reduced services.
Recent figures obtained by Labour through Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, show that since 2010 one in six centres has cut its opening hours and one in ten provides fewer services. Numbers of staff have also dropped at one in five centres.
The Conservatives dispute these figures, saying that centres have moved premises or merged and that there have only been 45 ‘outright closures’.
A Conservative spokesman said, ‘Once again, Labour are shaking the magic money tree to pay for unfunded spending commitments. That’s exactly how Labour got us into a mess in the first place. Hard-working people will pay the price for Ed Miliband’s chaotic ill-discipline through higher taxes, more borrowing and more debt.’