Breaking point for children's centres

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The scale of cuts to Sure Start centres over the past five years has been truly frightening, says Dave Prentis

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Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary

 In 2015 alone, more than 30 councils reviewed their children’s centres, resulting in closures or cuts to services in every case.

Taken individually, these reductions could be seen as unfortunate. As a whole though, cuts and closures across all types of authority represent a systematic reduction in the number of centres and the range of services available to children and families.

The argument about the future of Sure Start should not just focus on the number of building closures and how many children are reached. Sure Start centres have always been much more than just buildings. The most important part has always been the staff and the children they support.

For too long, the arguments in Parliament about children’s centre closures have been characterised by several factors. These include a Government in denial about the scale of the cuts, political point scoring, the passing of blame on to local authorities and pedantry over the number of closed centres. Little thought appears to have gone into the impact of cuts on the staff, children and families affected.

Unison believes that a thorough evaluation is needed of how the cuts have had an impact on centres and services. I have no trust in the ‘open review’ that childcare minister Sam Gyimah promised would take place this autumn. It’s nearly December and we’ve yet to hear from him.

In particular, we need to assess if a ‘hub and spoke’ model is working. We have to establish whether this approach can really match the aspiration of high-quality services for children and families at the heart of every community.

It is not just closures that are affecting services. Our members, including nursery assistants and social workers, are also saying that some services are no longer free. This policy is affecting those most in need of support from children’s centres and those least able to pay.

The loss of nursery places is another concern. The Department for Education’s own research shows a 50 per cent fall in centres providing childcare on-site. Having good childcare available was always the key to getting families and children involved, but some of the most deprived areas are feeling the worst impact of cuts. The number of full day care places in children’s centres has fallen from 38,000 in 2008 to just 18,000 in the past five years in the UK’s most deprived areas.

Our members highlight that families are much more willing to use other services in centres once they start attending and get to know staff. Staff report that these childcare cuts are really beginning to affect the services they provide, and make it more difficult to reach the families Sure Start was designed to help.

The recent children’s centre census by 4Children demonstrated both the extent of cuts and the move away from a universal offer to families. Unison believes that this was a mistake. Without a mix of families using centres, there is a risk of creating provision purely for the poor. This could mean those who attend become stigmatised and we end up creating poorer services for all.

We fear cuts will mean the loss of much of the progress made through early investment in Sure Start. Key staff will be lost too, along with their skills and experience. As a result, Sure Start risks being branded a failure.

Children’s centre staff have done an amazing job coping with years of cuts since 2010, reaching out to more and more families despite the reduction in resources. However, many staff are now at breaking point.

A recent Unison survey of staff working in early years found that 90 per cent are struggling to make ends meet and they have to rely on family and friends for support. Despite loving their jobs, many experienced early years staff will leave the sector, simply because they can’t afford to stay.

The core idea of Sure Start still works. The idea that high-quality services for all should be provided on a single site where professionals are more able to co-operate and work together still makes sense. We must keep hold of this vision and fight to retain and cherish our children’s centres.

The £300m promised by the Chancellor for the extension of free places is inadequate to deliver the high-quality places our young children deserve.

The proposed funding rate of £4.88 an hour is not enough to fund a professional workforce. The further reduction in funding to local authorities will only bring more pain for the sector. Councils will be forced to cut back further in their support for early years. This is an ill thought out, short-termist approach that fails to recognise that investing in early years saves the Government money in the long-term.

Early years staff understand that the early years are the most important in a child’s development. I only wish the Chancellor did too.

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