Facing questions from the Education Committee, childcare minister Sam Gyimah was asked to clarify their core purpose.
According to the committee, Ofsted, Barnardo’s and local authorities remained unclear about the ‘core purpose’, as did the committee itself, and were calling for greater clarity.
Pat Glass MP said, ‘One of our strongest recommendations was greater clarity about the core purpose of children’s centres. Is there somewhere we can go to with a list that says if you’re a children’s centre this is what you should be delivering?’ the MP said.
But Mr Gyimah said that the statutory guidance laid out what the core purpose should be and that it was ‘sufficiently clear to allow local authorities to deliver services that work best for their area.’
Just a third of children’s centres offer daycare, the minister said.
Daycare was no longer the core purpose - parental support, health and advice were, and centres were offering those services in different ways.
‘We’re moving from a situation where there was a very strongly defined prescription for children’s centres to an environment where we’ve got innovation and quite a lot of change’, but local authorities should be able to decide on key services, he said.
He said that the early years landscape had changed in the decade since the first centres opened in 2004, with provision for two-year-olds coming on stream, public health moving to local authorities, the integrated review and the Troubled Families’ programme.
‘Given everything else that is happening in the landscape it does follow logically that children’s centres would be nimble and preforming services that work for that area rather than sticking to a prescribed definition from 11 years ago,’ he said.
He was pressed by chair Graham Stuart. ‘We looked at the core definition and found it wanting and the people who run the services and the people who inspect them both agree with us and we’re waiting for some light on what they are for.’
In response, Mr Gyimah said, ‘They’ve got to offer parental advice and services for families but it’s sufficiently broad that they can deliver services that best work – it is flexible I agree.’
Referring to former minister Liz Truss, Pat Glass said Mr Gyimah's predecessor had accepted that there was a mismatch between the core purpose and the Ofsted framework and had suggested that the Ofsted inspection framework should resolve the core purpose.
An Ofsted framework consultation had been postponed for more than a year, the committee heard.
The minister was asked whether, given that there was confusion over the core purpose and the framework, the Department for Education should take action.
Mr Gyimah said, ‘There is a mismatch because the original inspection framework was aligned to a very prescribed and hard definition of what children’s centres are and do.’
He said that Ofsted is looking at this on a more area-wide basis, with some services moving to a hub and spoke model. ‘It is changing and that work is going on now.’
Mr Gyimah also confirmed that the full impact report by Professor Kathy Sylva on the evaluation of children’s centres in England was due in June.