An evaluation of children's centres by the parliamentary education committee identifies three types of centre with different roles and functions being delivered by each – the majority of which do not provide early education or childcare despite it being a statutory requirement of the Childcare Act 2006.
As a result, the report states that the government’s core purpose for children’s centres – described by childcare minister Elizabeth Truss as “being there to offer services to parents, to improve outcomes for children and to provide a gateway into other services that are provided locally” – is too vague and calls on the government to be clearer about the services they should provide.
The committee also calls for clearer lines of accountability for the performance of children's centres. Local authorities should be held to account for outcomes and be clearer about their expectations from services delivered by centres.
The report recommends that the government introduce a national outcomes framework to monitor and assess individual centre's performance.
Graham Stuart, chair of the committee, says the government must make standards in children's centres a greater priority.
He said: “The government needs to prove that it is serious about closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children by setting out coherent, long-term thinking on early years and children’s centres.
“Ministers should start by making clear the government’s strategy for realising its aspiration to put in place a highly qualified workforce with equal pay and status between early years teachers and those in primary schools.”
4Children chief executive Anne Longfield supports the committee’s recommendations.
She said: “The report is tough but fair with regard to refining expectations around the role, performance, outcomes and accountability of children’s centres and local authorities.
“To move forward everyone should have a clear expectation of the integral role that children’s centres play in getting the very best for children and families in their communities and work together to make sure it happens.
“The vision for children’s centres should be to become an integral part of every community and an invaluable resource to every family no matter what their circumstances.”
Similarly, a National Children's Bureau (NCB) spokeswoman said: "The NCB supports the committee’s recommendation that further clarity is needed to develop a clearer understanding of the core purpose for children’s centres, which is focused on delivering achievable outcomes for children and families, especially the most vulnerable.
"A more focused vision of priorities can go some way to mitigating the effects of local authority budget cuts, and will enable children’s centres to continue providing a wide range of vital services and outreach support."
Shadow education minister Lucy Powell added: “This report is a devastating verdict on an out-of-touch government with no strategy or vision for children and the early years.
“Families trying to make ends meet need the support offered by children’s centres more than ever and the government needs to act as a matter of urgency.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said record numbers of parents were using children's centres, and that it was up to local authorities to decide how best to organise the services.
Sure Start children’s centres were introduced in 2004 to provide joined-up services for young children and families.
Pressures on statutory funding and the removal of a ringfence for funding in 2010 has seen the number of centres fall from 3,631 in April 2010 to 3,161 in April this year.