Leadership: How all our children's centres survived the cuts in Hertfordshire

In February 2011, Hertfordshire County Council leader Robert Gordon announced that funding for the Hertfordshire children's centre programme will continue at the same level as in 2010/11, ensuring that no children's centres will be closed.

There has been much praise for this decision locally and nationally. But at a time when many local authorities are having to review and cut back their own children's centres programmes, how have we managed to retain this as a universal service?

The answer is one we are familiar with in the early years sector: through a mixture of effective planning, clear vision, determination, partnership working and luck.

By April 2010 we had established 82 children's centres to support 64,000 under-fives and their families by commissioning 52 lead agencies through an open tender process. Thirty-seven per cent of the lead agencies are from the voluntary sector.

I believe that the universality of the children's centre programme is its strength. But this needs to be supported by the crucial earliest intervention work that our children's centres deliver. This is achieved by using local data and intelligence to target services, reach out to non-traditional users of early years services and tackle the intergenerational cycles of deprivation.

As a large two-tier authority we rely on professionals who are on the ground to know their community. We agree the county priorities and objectives through the corporate plan and the children and young people's plan. But the translation of that locally is what has begun to embed children's centres into the fabric of family life. Families are drawn towards the centres by addressing their wants as well as needs. Staff can then offer a range of services and support that both enhances early childhood and improves the future lives of children.

Universality of children's centres is at great risk in the current financial climate so we have to make this work for us. As well as payment-by-results, we need to consider how we support a charging policy for children's centres, perhaps through expanding the current support offered to schools for assessing free school meal criteria.

And where did the "luck" come in? We did not receive Sure Start Local Programme funding but established our children's centre programme on a minimalist model. Most centres had limited capital expenditure and use other community venues as part of the hub-and-spoke delivery model. The revenue funding is also limited to cover the core offer of children's centres. We did not fund or subsidise childcare but worked with local early years providers to ensure this was available and integrated with the children's centres. While in the past we watched in envy as others developed high-profile, new build, child and family-friendly centres, our low-cost model is now proving our salvation.

Hertfordshire children's centres provide high-quality services for all local families, with targeted and specialist services for the most disadvantaged through a sustainable model that has endeared them to parents and politicians alike.

Sally Orr, head of early years and childhood support, Hertfordshire County Council


Effective dialogue and communication is vital

  • Keep local politicians informed and engaged
  • Meet regularly with children's centre managers and the representatives of the lead agencies to brief, discuss, update and share local and national ideas
  • Share evidence of real impact, not just good news stories

Stay flexible and keep changing

  • There is no one size for children's centre models - each must reflect local need
  • Have a clear local authority view of the overarching objectives for young children and their families but encourage a localised approach for delivery
  • Managing diversity is challenging and feels risky, but ultimately it will build sustainability in the community

Lead and accept challenge

  • Listen to the views and concerns from other teams and partners across children's services - they need to be advocates of the children's centre programme
  • Use annual reviews and contract monitoring meetings to ensure that centres are delivering quality services to meet the local need
  • A service might be popular but not effective - be prepared to challenge the comfortable

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