Minister's View - Why we are consulting on the future of children's centres

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Childcare minister Sam Gyimah exclusively unveils the Government's new consultation on the future of children's centres.

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Sam Gyimah

As this edition of Nursery World falls on my first anniversary as Childcare Minister (July 15), I have been reflecting on the last year - as well as my next steps and priorities.

It has been an enjoyable, challenging and thoroughly rewarding year - we have achieved so much working alongside such a committed frontline of providers. And we're not going to stop here as we continue our quest to make the highest quality childcare available to all families.

Having an open dialogue about childcare with the people that matter is extremely important to me. That's why I've shared countless hours talking to parents, stakeholders and early years staff.

The fuel that keeps that fiery debate going is that we have all voluntarily taken on the moral mission to getting the early years right, to give every child the best possible start in life.

I can't count the number of engaging conversations I've had with others who share my passion to continually ask, probe and question whether things are the absolute best they possibly could be for the next generation.

There is one particular issue that is a priority for me - the future of Children's Centres, something that many of you are also particularly interested in.

When they work, Children's Centres have the potential to make a critical difference to young families at vulnerable and challenging times in their lives.

Parents don't just need flexible care, they need help and advice too. Health visitors provide that by supporting families with everything they need, from advice about the nearest creche to how to breastfeed.

All the evidence shows if you focus on the early years you have the best chance of transforming a child's life. We are committed to giving a coherent offer to help families in the early years, bringing together all those services targeted at getting children ready to join school by the age of four.

This is why I am pleased that a record number of parents are benefiting. More than one million are now using them. And we have increased funding for early intervention to £2.5 billion to help them meet local need, as well as investing £5 million in a series of pilots to use Children's Centres to provide employment support and training for parents.

So the value is obvious, but the reality is that not enough Children's Centres are good or outstanding, and as a result they aren't helping families in the way they should be. We have to collectively look into why that is the case. Like everyone who is committed to this moral mission, I am not content to just accept things when there is a possibility for improvement.

That's why I'm delighted to announce that we will be launching an open consultation this autumn about Children's Centres. More specifically, we will be making sure that they are set up to have the very best impact on children's lives and maximise support to families.

This consultation will drive real change in what we expect from Children's Centres. As a result, I will also work with Ofsted to reform the way they are inspected. It's about time that centres are inspected on how they are organised now and their impact - not how they were organised in the past.

Getting the accountability framework right is absolutely essential to deliver the support families deserve. I don't want to see Ofsted having to inspect Children's Centres through a framework that is out of date, no longer fit for purpose and doesn't reflect the reality on the ground.

This will be a full and open consultation and I want to hear the views of everyone who accesses, works in or oversees Children's Centres. So where better to announce it than in Nursery World?

I am far from a stranger to Children's Centres. Not only have I visited many with my Ministerial hat on, I have also seen the benefits of having an outstanding Children's Centre in my own neighbourhood that we, as a young family, have benefited from.

I know from those visits that the roles and models of Children's Centres are changing. Local authorities, in consultation with providers, staff and parents, are taking sensible decisions about how best to configure children's centre services locally to meet the needs of their communities.

I will always relentlessly pursue the best outcomes for young children. I'm strongly of the view that outcomes matter and therefore the barometer of whether we are doing well is not simply the number of centres open, but the services they provide.

This consultation is not just about the bricks and mortar of Children's Centres - it's about what they provide as part of the integrated services for children and families locally. I want to dig deep to see if we are maximising their impact and really helping the people that need it most.

Local areas are already adopting new models of delivery of services from Children's Centres, meaning there is a very changed landscape from when they were first envisaged.

One such example is Hertfordshire, where they have introduced Family Matters meetings. These take place at least monthly and identify families in need of additional support following the arrival of a new baby. This often includes support from the Family Nurse Partnerships. Child protection colleagues have reported a reduction in referrals from those families receiving support through this route.

Another restructure was in Islington, where Children's Centres have been working closely with health colleagues on their 'First 21 months' programme. Improved communication between Children's Centres, GPs, midwives and health visitors has enabled a strengthened programme of ante and post-natal support for those families identified at risk early on.

We also know that some Children's Centres are playing a key role in delivering childcare, but others are working with local childcare providers and signposting parents to those services and doing so very effectively. Going forward, Children's Centres will also have a key role to play in delivering integrated reviews, which will check a child's health and educational progress.

In addition, from this September, local authorities will also take responsibility for public health, creating new opportunities to think about how services are best configured.

As I prepare to enter my second year in one of Westminster's most important jobs, I'm extremely optimistic. The quality of childcare continues to improve, with Ofsted inspections reaching a record high after 85 per cent were rated as good or outstanding. And we have fantastic new policies, such as doubling the free entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds.

But we're not on this journey alone, and I will continue to listen to what the sector thinks about how the future should be formed.

The most important thing to stress is that nothing is off the table. If you have a thought on the future of Children's Centres, I want to hear from you.

I'm excited to continue working with all of you to give all children the very best start in life - and this open consultation on the future of Children's Centres plays a central part in our shared moral mission.

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