Children's centres overstretched in targeting most vulnerable

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Children's centres are reducing activities open to all in the move to targeting families in greatest need, finds the latest report of a six-year study.

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'Organisation, services and reach of children's centres', by the team carrying out the Evaluation of Children's Centres in England for the DfE, said that staff feared that reducing universal access would deny services to families who have less complex needs but are still poor, while stigmatising the higher need families.

The research found that almost half of staff are dealing with families 'on social workers' books' who have complex needs, but are receiving less support from outside partner agencies than in the past. There were concerns that the loss of open access services meant that it would be harder to identify families with needs just below the radar of social services.

Staff also felt that training was inadequate to take on such highly intensive work.

Multi-agency working was felt to require improvement, with some partnerships suffering from tensions.

There has been a clear movement away from the standalone model of children's centre to those featuring clustering, and this has increased workload, pressure and responsibility. Lower academically qualified managers were more likely to be found at centres with service clustering, the report said. Leadership in complex clusters needs strengthening, said the report team.

Of the 121 centres surveyed, 30 per cent had reduced services due to funding cuts, and a quarter had reduced their hours or days.

Senior researcher Professor Kathy Sylva, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Education, said, ‘Our study shows that staff and managers in children’s centres are working incredibly hard to meet the needs of their communities. Yet they admit and our qualitative data shows that their overall capacity is over-stretched. Delivering the impressive aims of the children’s centre programme will require intelligent management and optimisation of  resources to enable centres to continue to offer effective services that support families in poorer areas.’

The centres in the study were mostly located in very disadvantaged areas. Even the few found in less disadvantaged areas still drew a one third of their users from poor areas, said the report. Centres typically had a very high level of registration among families with children aged 0-4 and each centre dealt with an average of 770 children.

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