The Sure Start children’s centre programme was one of the key initiatives for young children and their families between 1998-2010. The programme was intended to be a multi-agency area-based initiative to bring together services for 0-5s and their families, focused initially on the most disadvantaged areas in England. The aim was open access and universal services, acting as a gateway for more specialised services. By its peak in 2009/10, there were 3,632 centres, with over half (54%) in the 30% most disadvantaged areas.
From 2009-2015 a major national evaluation was carried out by a research consortium, including DSPI and the Education Department at Oxford. While this found positive evidence of effects on families and children, it was clear that the programme was already faltering nationally, as objectives shifted, national funding was no longer ‘ring-fenced’ and overall direction disappeared. Since then local authorities have faced very large cuts in their budgets (official figures indicate a 50% reduction in Sure Start spending 2010-2016) and increasing pressure on statutory services for children and families ‘at risk’.
Funded by the Sutton Trust, a small team of researchers led by Kathy Sylva at the Education Department with George and Teresa Smith from DSPI set out in autumn 2017 to chart what had happened to children’s centres. The resultant report ‘Stop Start: survival, decline or closure? Children’s centres in England, 2018’ (George Smith, Kathy Sylva, Teresa Smith, Pam Sammons and Aghogho Omonigho), published on April 5 2018 with extensive national and local media coverage.
Drawing on administrative data, a survey of local authorities and six area case studies, the research found
- official figures recorded about 14% of centres nationally had been closed by autumn 2017. But closures announced locally were not always reflected in national figures and counting ‘registered children’s centres’ suggested that 30% or more might have been closed. A further wave of closures was announced in late 2017/early 2018;
- a small number of local authorities (7%) that had closed more than 50% of their centres accounted for a high proportion of all closures announced nationally. But a much larger number of authorities (34%) had kept most or all their centres open;
- reductions in services offered was the most common response, with more part-time opening, a much smaller range of services available, greater focus on ‘referred families’ rather than ‘open access’, and different services timetabled across different centres in the same authority;
- more than 80% of local authorities cited ‘financial pressures’ and ‘change of focus’ as the principal drivers of change. This was not only more targeting of high need families, but also linking the centres into a wider package of ‘early help’ aimed at a much wider age group (0-19);
- more than a third of all authorities were anticipating further substantial changes in the near future - with fewer centres, more emphasis on referred families, an increased age range and more clustering of centres to spread limited staff time.
The overall results show great variation across local authorities, with very different levels of coverage and different aims – no longer a national programme. Some areas have linked their centres to local nursery or primary schools thus reinforcing the focus on early child development, while others have integrated their centres into teams dealing with referred families and young people with a much wider age range (0-19) thus shifting to a more social work focus. All this is a major departure from the original idea of an open access neighbourhood centre aimed at young children and their families.
You can read more about the report on the Oxford Department of Education site and the main University site. For a sample of press coverage about the report, head over to The Guardian.