Interview - Anthony Harper, service manager, children’s centres and childcare development, Portsmouth City Council

Anthony Harper explains Portsmouth's approach to early years services

How do you ensure early years services are adequately catered for?

I sit on the school places planning strategy board, which has the early years right at its heart, so when a school extension is being talked about, early years is also being considered equally. The local authority has invested well and that's why our outcomes with EYFS Profile continue to be high. We have a thriving market and our capital strategy has been closely connected with the schools capital strategy.

What's special about the city council in this respect?

Possibly as a small authority, it's easier, in terms of strategic management and cabinet, to work much more closely together than in a larger authority. We’ve got good engagement from all of our childcare providers and we really have worked in partnership. Due to the ongoing financial challenges we all face, many local authorities have disinvested, meaning they’re not able to have this ongoing relationship with providers.

What are the challenges?

I believe our funding levels have been about average and we’ve held our same funding position for the past few years, but providers have been keen to let us know the rates aren’t as high as their business costs require. That brings some pressures, but we haven’t had any significant issues. We’ve had to make significant budget savings, and reconfigure our nine children's centres into three localities, using a multi-agency team approach.

Four large children's services are currently co-located – children's centres and early years, children's social care, the family intervention project, health visiting and school nursing services. Three centres were formally de-designated this year and our policy is to minimise spend on buildings rather than services. We face further significant spending reductions over the next few years and are reviewing priorities.

And the successes?

The Northern Parade schools programme has been huge to increase schools admission. We’ve been able to take capital out of the central corporate pot to boost provision.

We’ve worked hard to improve community facilities, to establish early years provision in them, and been able to help community venues create sustainable incomes, for example we invested in Paulsgrove Baptist Church's community hall. The same with The Stacey Centre in Baffins. We’ve put a nursery in there as part of that deal, which has also increased rental income. There was one infant school where the Little Sunbeams pre-school needed to move and we found them a much better site. The pre-school now forms part of an all-through provision from YR to 11, with all the future benefits to the provider.

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