As many as 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres across the country have closed since 2009 – twice as many as the government has reported – according to a major new analysis published by the Sutton Trust today.
Between August 2009 and October 2017, official government data recorded a 14% drop in centre numbers, from 3,632 to 3,123. But today’s Stop Start report for the Trust by leading Oxford University academics finds this is likely to be a big underestimate because there is no clear definition of a ‘children’s centre’ and official data does not keep up with closures announced locally.
Due to local mergers, reorganisations and service reductions, many of the original centres have been converted to ‘linked sites’, which offer fewer services and are counted by some authorities but not by others. Looking at just ‘registered children’s centres’ themselves, the drop since 2009 is more than 30%. In areas that have not had closures, local authorities have had to reduce services and staffing.
The Sure Start Children’s Centre programme, introduced in 1998 by the last Labour government, brought together ‘under one roof’ services for young children and their families. Focused initially on the most disadvantaged areas in England, the programme was later extended to all areas. By its peak in August 2009, there were 3,632 centres, with over half (54%) in the 30% most disadvantaged areas. However, in recent years, its status as a key national programme has diminished, accompanied by substantial budget cuts, the suspension of Ofsted inspections and increasingly uneven local provision.
Stop Start finds big regional variation in the extent of closures. By 2017, sixteen authorities who had closed more than half of their centres accounted for 55% of the total number of closures. But in areas with fewer closures there’s been a reduction of services and staff, leading to fewer open access services such as Stay and Play and more parents having to rely on public transport to find a centre offering what they need.
The report, by a team from the University of Oxford – Professor Kathy Sylva, George Smith, Teresa Smith and Professor Pam Sammons – warns that the closures are creating a ‘postcode lottery’ of early years provision. They say the children’s centre programme is now at a ‘tipping point’, with more authorities preparing to make drastic cuts this year.
The researchers surveyed local authorities for the reasons behind the changes in provision. Not surprisingly, financial pressures came top in 84% of local authorities, with 69% of authorities reporting a budget decrease in the last two years. ‘Change of focus’ came a close second (80%) with local authorities reporting a move away from access for all towards targeting of individual high need families, in some cases with a much wider age range (0-19).
According to the report, “services are now ‘hollowed out’ – much more thinly spread, often no longer ‘in pram-pushing distance’. The focus of centres has changed to referred families with high need, and provision has diversified as national direction has weakened, leading to a variety of strategies to survive in an environment of declining resources and loss of strategic direction.”
To stop the piecemeal local closure of centres and restore a sense of purpose, the Sutton Trust is calling on the government to complete the long-promised review of the children’s centre programme, as well as maintaining a national register of children’s centres which establishes minimum levels of provision. The Trust would also like to see children’s centres reconnect with their original purpose of promoting positive child and family development for under-fives by focusing on providing open access services in centres that do not stigmatise families whose children attend as ‘troubled’.
Sir Peter Lampl, Founder of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:
“Good quality early years provision makes a substantial difference in the development of children especially those who come from the poorest homes. It is a serious issue that the services that Sure Start centres offer are much more thinly spread than they were a decade ago. Additionally, since 2010 there has been a precipitous decline of 30% in the number of Sure Start centres. Thousands of families are missing out on the vital support they provide.
“The Government should complete its long-promised review of the programme. Instead of trying to serve all age groups, children’s centres should reconnect with their original purpose of promoting child and family development for the 0-5 age group.”
Professor Kathy Sylva, lead author of the report, said:
“Our national survey of local authorities found wide variation in level of closures and in number of services on offer. This is all the more alarming in light of the government’s own evaluation of Sure Start showing many beneficial effects of children’s centre use on families.
“At a time of increasing pressure on poor families with young children, there is an urgent need for evidence based services to support them.”