Government records of Sure Start children’s centre closures are a massive underestimate, according to a major report published today.
Conducted by Oxford University and commissioned by the Sutton Trust, the foundation dedicated to improving social mobility through education, the Stop Start report reveals that as many as 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres across the UK have closed since 2009 – twice as many as the government has reported.
Between August 2009 and October 2017, officials recorded a 14% drop in centre numbers, from 3,632 to 3,123. However, today’s publication suggests that since the official figures do not include up to date local closures or without a clear definition of what a ‘children’s centre’ actually is, it is not an accurate reflection of the current state of Sure Start service provision.
Introduced in 1998 by the last Labour government, The Sure Start Children’s Centre programme, 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 and been inflamed by secondary factors, such as substantial budget cuts, the suspension of Ofsted inspections and increasingly uneven local provision.
The findings, compiled by a team of researchers from Oxford’s Department of Education; Professor Kathy Sylva, George Smith, Teresa Smith and Professor Pam Sammons, reveal significant regional variation in the extent of closures. The authors caution that these closures are creating a ‘postcode lottery’ of early years’ provision. With more authorities preparing to make significant cuts this year, the children’s centre programme is now at a ‘tipping point’.
According to the report, “services are now 'hollowed out' - much more thinly spread and 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.”
Kathy Sylva, lead author, Honorary Research Fellow and Professor of Educational Psychology at Oxford, 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.’
The combined effects of local mergers, reorganisations and service reductions, have resulted in many of the original centres being converted into ‘linked sites’, offering fewer services. These facilities are counted as Sure Start centres by some authorities but not by others which has caused confusion and inaccuracies in closure data.
By 2017, sixteen local 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 team found that the reasons behind the changes in provision varied regionally. Not surprisingly, financial pressures came top in 84% of local authorities, with 69% 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).
The report is intended as a call to action for 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 team 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.’