Sure Start centre closures hit vulnerable families hardest

One of my main election platforms last year when running for Oxfordshire County Council was the closure of our local children’s centre. I’m glad to report that it has re-opened as a community initiative, run by a committee of volunteers.

But that is not the case in many areas of the country. Research published today by the Sutton Trust and conducted by academics from Oxford University shows that as many as 1,000 Sure Start centres have closed since 2009, with 69% of local authorities reporting a budget decrease in the last two years.

Professor Kathy Silva, one of the authors of the “Stop Start” report, writes

We surveyed local authorities across the country and found reductions in senior staff and ‘hollowing out’ of open-access services, the kinds of non-stigmatising activities aimed at all families in the surrounding neighbourhood and not just those on the books of Social Services.

…Hard-pressed local authority officials described that cuts necessitated a major shift away from open access activities such as Stay & Play or Rhyme Time, to statutory duties of child protection or social work support for families whose children are ‘at risk’.

‘Stop Start’ has five key recommendations, one of which is

Children’s centres should reconnect with their original purpose. Shifting the balance too far towards referred children and families, away from open access, and merging children’s centres into preventative teams working with a very much wider age group, serves a very different function and requires very different skills. It does not seem to fit well under the label of a local ‘children’s centre’. A good mix of children is important for social mobility and children’s social development.

This report follows on last year’s paper Closing Gaps Early, which analysed the role of early years policy in promoting social mobility. As the party who introduced free school meals, the pupil premium and shared parental leave, we understand that children need a good start in life. Equalising opportunity is key in fighting societal inequalities. The Closing Gaps Early report states:

Given the evidence that income poverty is damaging to children’s development and future mobility, financial support to families must have a place in a strategy to narrow gaps in children’s starting points.

And goes on to suggest

In early education and childcare, the shift away from efforts to ensure and improve quality are of great concern. We recognise that early education and childcare can have multiple goals but from the perspective of narrowing gaps in child development and promoting social mobility, quality must be primary. For that reason, measures to improve quality of provision should be the key priority in this area.

Commenting on today’s ‘Stop Start’ report, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson and MP for Oxford West and Abingdon Layla Moran said:

Children’s centres provide invaluable advice and support for families. They have been shown to deliver health and educational benefits and play a crucial role in reducing social inequality.

This issue is an absolute priority for me. I saw every one of the children’s centres in my constituency close in the year before I became an MP and I know what a devastating impact that has had for some vulnerable local families. This report provides yet more evidence that the Government must act to stem this tide of closures.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at www.kirstenjohnsonpiano.com.

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3 Comments

  • Of course Kirsten is quite right and I share her unhappiness. But let’s be clear who bears some responsibility for this. The cuts in funding started when the Lib Dems had a certain Cabinet Minister (the future Sir Daniel) as first Secretary to the Treasury.

    In January, 2017, Dan Jarvis MP was told in answer to a parliamentary question that more than 350 Sure Start children’s centres had closed in England since 2010, with only eight new centres opening over that period. Spending on the centres in the 2015-16 financial year was 47% less in real terms than in 2010.

    The trouble faced by Lib Dems now is that every time they throw a boomerang it comes back and hits them.

  • Tony Greaves 5th Apr '18 - 3:50pm

    Be fair, David – Sir Daniel is away in Hong Kong and we are not all responsible for his incompetence when he was a Treasury Minister. The boomerang only comes back if there is someone there to chuck it back and we should not be doing that. (But I do hope that Sir D will not be coming back).

  • Always look on the bright side of life, Tony. Hopefully the slow boat to China only sells single tickets. For further enlightenment control and click below.

    How boomerang throwing can turn your mood around – Telegraph
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/…/improve-mood-with-boomerang-throwing.ht…
    28 May 2015 – and try boomerang throwing

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