DfE launches children's centres review

By Joanne Parkes

| 08 May 2019

The early years sector has cautiously welcomed the launch of a government review of children's centres - which has been announced without fanfare.

The DfE has announced it is reviewing children's centres

The Department for Education has confirmed that the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) will "look at children's centres and other delivery models to find out what works well".

The news comes almost five years after ministers first promised a consultation on the future of children's centres, which was last year shelved indefinitely.

It comes amid continued sector concerns over high numbers of Sure Start centre closures nationally, as well as falling spending by councils on the facilities - described by the sector as "a lifeline for disadvantaged and vulnerable families".

There were also calls for a review to be completed just last week from the Social Mobility Commission, in a report that did not refer to the government announcement.

The Early Years Alliance (EYA) and the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), which have been among the sector organisations calling for a review, questioned whether it would be sufficiently comprehensive - it is not an official consultation.

The organisations also urged the government to address increasing costs and funding cuts.

EYA chief executive Neil Leitch said: "It beggars belief that, almost five years since the promised review of 2015, which was subsequently cancelled, we are still no closer to understanding fully what government thinks children's centres are supposed to achieve."

The announcement of the review was made in last month's government response to the parliamentary education committee report on tackling disadvantage in the early years, which was published in February.

The committee recommended a "comprehensive strategy for early years services, including children's centres and family hubs, to give disadvantaged children the best possible start in life".

The response, published by the DfE, describes a wider £8.5m investment in its local government programme, delivered in partnership with the Local Government Association and the EIF, which has a focus on the early years and social mobility.

In addition to that, the government will commission the EIF to "identify tools and support for local areas to help them make informed decisions about different models to deliver early years integrated services, including children's centres and family hubs".

The review aims to:

  • Review and understand the research and practice evidence for different models of integrated early childhood services.
  • Develop and test practical resources for local authorities and their local partners on applying new learning about services.
  • Share good practice with leaders and commissioners of early childhood services.

Children's minister Nadhim Zahawi also revealed new figures on children's centres in a recent written parliamentary answer, which indicate that there were 2,353 designated centres as of 31 March this year.

According to the Sutton Trust, at the peak of the Sure Start programme in 2009, there were 3,632 children's centres open across the country.

And research published in spring 2018 found that more than 1,000 centres closed in the preceding decade, a trend that continues, though Zahawi claims that with a further 700 "additional sites", the total number of sites was 3,053 at the end of the financial year.

However, such attempts to classify sites such as family hubs as children's centres have been questioned.

Leitch said: "The signposting services offered by family hubs and other government initiatives are cheaper alternatives to children centres but it's not clear they are as effective."

The government response encourages local authorities to "adopt the family hub approach, which aims to build stronger relationships and co-locate services, if they believe it would deliver improved outcomes for their areas".

It adds: "The new work led by the EIF will consider the role that family hubs can play as a model of service delivery so that local areas can make informed decisions.

"Ultimately, it is not the role of central government to promote one specific way of delivering services to children and families.

"While some argue that government should be working to put in place a 0-19 model across the country, we know others advocate for a sharper focus on younger children, proposing that children's centres focus on a 0-2 age range.

"Both these models could work and provide much needed support to families - there are other models that can work too.

"It is for local authorities to determine the model that they believe will work best for them, based on their area's specific needs, the evidence base, history of local provision, local community circumstances and priorities."

Leitch said: "It's all well and good to say decisions about local provision should be made locally - but government is effectively making that decision for many local authorities by not providing sufficient financial support."

NDNA chief executive Purnima Tanuku said: "This review into children's centres is long overdue. Many local authorities are struggling due to budget cuts and have announced closures and reconfigurations of children's centres.

"The entire early years funding and delivery of childcare should be reviewed in line with increasing costs."

Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Governement Association's children and young people board, said: "While many councils have adapted well to the funding pressures and changed how they provide children's centre services, there is a growing sense that councils have done all they can within ever tightening budgets.

"It is inevitable that without new investment from government in children's services, councils will face the difficult but unavoidable decision of having to cut or close early help services such as children's centres.

"This is why it is hugely important that the government delivers a long-term sustainable funding solution for children's services in this year's Spending Review."

The DfE said that the outcome of the EIF work will be shared with local authorities "so they have more evidence to help them make the best decisions for their communities".

blog comments powered by Disqus