The charity estimates that since the Government suspended full Ofsted inspections of children’s centres in September 2015, 969 should have been inspected – 40 per cent of all designated centres in England.
Action for Children says that during the suspension, introduced by the Department for Education on a ‘short-term basis’ pending a consultation on the future of children’s centres, which has not taken place, Ofsted has undertaken no assessment of the quality of performance of early intervention family support services delivered by centres.
Previously, Ofsted was required to inspect centres no later than five years after the last inspection. Inspections collect evidence on aspects such as the safety of the centre, how its public finances are managed, how well it serves young children and parents in the area and its success in identifying prospective families in most need.
While the suspension has been in place, Ofsted has still been responsible for emergency inspections of centres if a safeguarding concern is raised. However, a Freedom of Information request sent to the inspectorate by Action for Children in July 2017, revealed no such inspections were carried out as none were required.
Action for Children’s estimate is based upon records of previous Ofsted inspections of children’s centres between 2010 and September 2015. Using postcodes and addresses, the charity compared inspection reports to a current list of children’s centres available from the Getting Information About Schools’ (GIAS) database, operated by the Department for Education.
The charity focused on designated children’s centres still open in December 2017 and added five years to their last inspection date to provide an Estimated Inspection Deadline (EID). It then counted the number of centres with an EID that fell between September 2015 and December 2017 – the period inspections have been suspended.
Any centres classes as linked sites were removed from the total as these would be inspected as part of a group leading to a single report and judgement, as were centres that might have been remodelled as hubs – effectively becoming a new centre.
Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, which runs 119 children’s centres, said, ‘The Government acknowledges that children’s centres have an “important role to play” in ensuring all children get the best possible start in life, but the ongoing freeze of Ofsted inspections is undermining them.
‘Without evidence from Ofsted about how centres can improve, central Government has left local authorities with no clear national standards or framework for these vital services.
‘How are we to know how well families are being supported, or the impact of the £1bn of public money spent on children’s centres since 2015? Would we allow all schools and hospitals to go uninspected for so long?
‘While it continues to drag its feet, central Government is letting down tens of thousands of children and families who need support now. It urgently needs to push through its overdue review of early years services so children’s centres have clarity about how they should be working, what they should be achieving and the accountability framework they are working to.’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, 'It is completely unacceptable that so many children centres have been left uninspected for such a prolonged period of time as a result of Government inaction.
'This was meant to be a temporary pause while ministers consulted on the future on the children’s centres - but more than two years later, such plans seem to have disappeared without a trace, leaving those both working in and using such services completely in the dark about their future.
'The Government talks a lot about the importance of social mobility - so how can it justify all but abandoning such a vital source of help and support for vulnerable families?
'This has dragged on for long enough. The Government must now confirm its plans for children’s centres, and ensure that those families that need it most have access to the early support services that they need.'
Commenting on Action for Children’s research, Tracy Brabin, shadow early years minister accused the Government of ‘completely neglecting England’s children’s centres.
She said, ‘The Tories have cut children’s centre budgets by hundreds of millions and now left them uninspected because they never got around to finishing their consultation.
‘Allowing centres to go uninspected by Ofsted for years leaves us with no idea of whether children’s centres are reaching the parents and children who need them most or if quality is being maintained.
‘Ministers now have serious questions to answer regarding how this was ever allowed to happen, and when they will fix it.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'All early years provision in children’s centres is subject to robust and regular Ofsted inspection. Local authorities who manage children’s centres must also ensure that other services provided in the centres have appropriate safeguards in place.
'We are determined to improve early years provision across the board. That is why we have pledged to close the word gap and have invested £200m to develop new and better ways of delivering children’s services to ensure they are high quality and meet the needs of families across the country.'