Children's centre consultation ditched, confirms DfE

By Joe Lepper

| 10 August 2018

A long-promised government consultation on the future of children's centres has been shelved indefinitely, the Department for Education has confirmed.

Nadhim Zahawi confirmed the decision in a letter to the House of Commons science and technology committee

The consultation involving the public and stakeholders had originally been due to launch in spring 2016, but has been marred with delays.

Despite former childcare minister Caroline Dinenage insisting last year that the consultation would take place, the DfE has now confirmed that there are currently no plans to run the consultation.

Instead, the government is to focus on implementing its social mobility action plan, which launched in December 2017 to improve early years provision in disadvantaged areas.

The government will also focus on its early years social mobility peer review programme. This launched in April and will be rolled out from this autumn to spread good practice in early years.

The DfE says children's minister Nadhim Zahawi confirmed the decision in a letter to the House of Commons science and technology committee, which is undertaking an inquiry into evidence-based early years interventions.

"Through the peer reviews and additional support, the (early years social mobility peer review) programme will spread best practice and help councils looking to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers," states Zahawi's letter.

"This will inform the next steps in our strategy to close the development gap, including considering any future consultation on the role of children's centres."

Additionally, in a House of Commons debate on children's centres last month, Zahawi said there were no plans for a consultation or review into the future of children's centres and he instead preferred to focus on spreading good practice.

"Rather than doing another consultation or review, let us look at where things are really working well," he said.

"Take Newcastle or Staffordshire, for example, where the local authority has taken an active role to close some of the children's centres, but focus on outreach and keeping those children's services where the most disadvantaged families need that help.

"We have looked at the six local authorities where the most children's centres have closed. Out of the six, four are doing better in closing the development gap, one is about flat and the other is oscillating."

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Shadow early years minister Tracy Brabin has criticised the decision to shelve the consultation.

"The apparent sidelining of this long-awaited consultation is very disappointing, particularly when considering its important remit of looking at the future role of children's centres," she said.

"It is pretty shameful that ministers have attempted to quietly shelve this important work without even providing a clear explanation why.

"Considering the rapid decline of Sure Start and children's centres from our communities, I suspect any independent consultation would make for difficult reading for the government."

Last month, the government set up a cross-departmental ministerial group to look at the feasibility of turning children's centres into "one-stop shops" to offer advice on pregnancy and raising babies.

This is chaired by House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and is looking at issues such as gaps in support for under-twos and how government departments can work better together to improve early years support.

Concerns that the consultation would be shelved first emerged last November when former children's minister Robert Goodwill failed to commit to it during a parliamentary debate.

Since 2009, around 1,000 children's centres have closed, according to research published in April by education charity the Sutton Trust.

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