Children's centres serve more families as budgets are squeezed

Laura McCardle
Tuesday, October 29, 2013

More families than ever before are using Sure Start children's centres, according to a survey by 4Children.

The charity’s Children’s Centre Census 2013, published today, reveals more than one million families are turning to their local centres for support, with 73 per cent of centres reporting an increase in the number of families using their services over the last 12 months.

Despite centres seeing a rise in the demand for services, the data reveals that 31 per cent expect to provide fewer services in a year’s time, while two per cent expect to close within the next year.

The census also reveals that 66 per cent of centres are operating on lower budgets than they were a year ago.

As a result of the findings, 4Children is calling on the government and local authorities to ensure that children’s centres are at the heart of early intervention and prevention strategies.

The charity also wants to see the pupil premium extended to the early years and invested in children’s centres, and more centres represented on multi-agency risk assessment conference boards in order to better safeguard children.

Explaining the charity’s recommendations, chief executive Anne Longfield said: “The past 12 months have seen existing pressures on families mounting, with increasing strain on job security, household finances, relationships and widespread anxiety over the potential impact of further austerity cuts to local support services.

"Our census shows that more and more families, particularly those in the greatest need, are turning to children’s centres to help pull them through these tough times.

“Local authorities are under extreme financial pressure to make tough decisions, but the long-term and financial rewards will come with filling up, not closing down these crucial centres, which have already provided a cost-effective lifeline for hundreds of thousands of families.

“Rather than contemplating reductions and closures, we should instead seize the opportunity to make the most of centres’ growing potential to help avert family crises.”

Lucy Powell, shadow childcare and early years minister, believes children’s centres play a vital role in supporting families.

She said: “This report paints a stark picture of the future for children’s centres and for the families that rely on them.

“David Cameron’s cost of living crisis is putting more and more pressure on family life and family budgets, and children’s centres are an essential part of the web of support services available to help families.

“Labour’s primary childcare guarantee and the extension of free childcare for working parents from 15 to 25 hours will be a real boost for families feeling the pinch and struggling to balance work and family life.”

Earlier this month, childcare minister Elizabeth Truss told the education select committee that the government is encouraging more services to be based at children’s centres.

She also said that the government is funding research into early intervention in order to gain better evidence about what is most effective.

4Children's findings were based on an online survey. In total, 501 children's centre staff responded, working across 127 local authorities in England.

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