Children's centres on their own cannot protect families against poverty

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On 17 December 2015 the latest official report from the Children’s Centres evaluation was published.

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Professor Eva Lloyd

If this date was chosen to avoid drawing media attention to its valuable findings, then DfE failed in its aim. Both the Guardian and the Independent have since highlighted positive impacts on families identified in this study, which over a two year period explored multiple effects of children’s centre services on young families in the most disadvantaged areas.

Crucially, centres where budgets were maintained or increased and services expanded during the evaluation period achieved better outcomes than those that were experiencing budget cuts and restructuring. More than a quarter of the 177 centres studied had experienced either or both of these negative pressures on their services. As the information for this part of the evaluation was collected between 2011 and 2013, these findings gains added significance in the light of continuing major cuts to children's centre budgets.

The evaluation’s authors remind us of the original rationale for the centres, which was to support all children and families living in particular disadvantaged areas, although some services might be targeted at those most in need. Since 2011, however, children’s centre budgets not only lost their local authority ring-fencing, but the centres’ inclusive core purpose has also been repeatedly reviewed by DfE.

As a result many children’s centres were forced to ration or abandon this more inclusive approach, proportional universalism, which was strongly recommended by Sir Michael Marmot in his 2010 report on reducing health inequalities in England. Yet at this time of rapidly growing poverty among families with young children, a flexible and not strictly ‘passported’ delivery of children’s centre services is particularly badly needed. Indeed, the report itself predicts that a return to broader support for young families within disadvantaged areas may promote longer-term positive outcomes for many.

The report concludes that children’s centres should not be regarded ‘as some kind of universal panacea’ that can address all the consequences of social disadvantage. This corresponds to conclusion in the 2014 Joseph Rowntree Foundation review of evidence for early childhood education and care’s impact on poverty compiled by Sylvia Potter and myself.

Having scrutinised pertinent research, we emphasised that by itself, even good quality provision does not ‘inoculate’ against the adverse effects of poverty on young children and their families. Instead multiple approaches are urgently needed to reduce poverty, including income poverty, to eliminate its pernicious impact on children’s educational achievements, health, nutrition, housing and access to public services. We can only hope that this message is heard by the Inquiry into Early Years Intervention and Life Chances.

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