Children's centres target disadvantaged at the expense of universal services

By Gabriella Jozwiak

| 19 July 2013

Children’s centres are increasingly targeting services at disadvantaged families and broadening their geographical reach, Department for Education research shows.

Children at play

Universal services are in decline at children's centres. Image: NTI

The Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England report showed the “one-stop shop” model for delivering family and children services from a central location is being replaced by centres forming clusters and opening satellite sites.

University of Oxford researchers interviewed staff and surveyed service providers in more than 120 children’s centres across England in 2012 to assess changes in service delivery.

They found budget cuts to children’s centres meant workers were scaling back universal services and spending more time delivering targeted work and visiting families in their homes.

Single centre managers were increasingly managing a group of children’s centres. Some staff in such clusters reported a decline in the centres’ overall “organisation and management” as a result.

Oxford University professor Kathy Sylva, one of the report’s authors, said the greater focus for targeted support for vulnerable families meant other local children could miss out. 

“This change is probably positive for vulnerable families, but because there is no extra money, some of the universal services, like stay and play, are being cut back because staff are out visiting vulnerable families in their homes,” said Sylva.

Stay-and-play sessions allow parents or carers to spend time playing with their children at a children’s centre.

The research found that about three-quarters of the children’s centres surveyed were located in the 30 per cent most deprived areas according to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children measure.

The children’s centres drew almost two-thirds of their users from these immediate, deprived areas.

Sylva said parents’ proximity to the centres suggested some less vulnerable families would be affected by cuts to services.

“Some of the families might be working poor, where the dad works during the day and the mum does shift work,” she suggested. “The mum probably took her child to stay and play, so the child had access to lovely toys and she could meet other mums.

“But in a time when all services have been cut, children’s centres cannot put in more effort for vulnerable families and provide universal services. This causes a tension between support for the most vulnerable and neighbourhood families who were using universal services such as childcare.”

This was the fourth report of the Evaluation of Children’s Centres, which is a six-year study commissioned by the DfE.

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