Family services at risk as thousands of children's centres face budget cuts

Exclusive: Two-thirds of England’s children’s centres, more than 2,300, have had their budget cut in the past year

Thousands of children’s centres face budget cuts this year, putting essential frontline services for families at risk, The Independent has learnt. 

Two-thirds of England’s children’s centres, more than 2,300, have had their budget cut in the past year, according to an annual census by the charity 4Children. These cuts follow four consecutive years of shrinking finances and means that almost a quarter report facing a highly uncertain future.

More than half of those who had experienced a cut said it would mean reductions to frontline services.

Introduced 17 years ago by the Labour government as Sure Start, children’s centres are designed to help parents in the community, providing a central hub for childcare, early education, health and family support. They have faced heavy cuts as a result of dwindling council budgets and hundreds have closed over the past five years, either by shutting down entirely or through mergers.

Now, a further 130 centre sites are at risk of closure, according to the 4Children research. Imelda Redmond, the charity’s chief executive, said: “More than a million families use children’s centres. No other part of our national infrastructure offers the same opportunity to identify and address problems early; bring communities together and make public services work better for families.

“Year on year reductions to children’s centre budgets are a real cause for concern. Our census shows that cuts are directly impacting on their abilities to reach out and support families. The trend towards targeting services on the most vulnerable risks missing those families who we would otherwise only see through universal services.”

More than three-quarters of the centres responding to the census reported a shift towards more targeted services, focusing on families most in need. The charity is concerned that this trend may limit centres’ ability to intervene at an early stage and help families prevent problems from escalating and becoming entrenched – a situation that could lead to further costs to public services later on.

Shadow childcare and early years Minister, Pat Glass, said: “David Cameron pledged to protect Sure Start but parents and children are paying the price for his broken promises as budget cuts bite. Services are being slashed and the future of this vital family service is in question. 

“The Government’s talk of prioritising social mobility will ring hollow if ministers do not champion early intervention services so that children get the best start in life.”

Parents were also surveyed by 4Children and more than 90 per cent of those using children’s centres said that attending them has had a positive impact on their child. A further 83 per cent said that going to a centre had a positive impact on their own confidence and skills as a parent.

130

The number of centre sites at risk of closure

The census, which was conducted over two months in the summer, is based on 388 responses from managers in 124 local authorities across England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have similar services.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “With more than a million parents using children’s centres, a record number of families are benefiting from their services – including two-thirds of all disadvantaged families with children under five. 

“It’s vital that every child, regardless of their background, is given the opportunity to realise their potential, which is why we’ve invested more than £2bn in early intervention services.

He added: “Councils have a duty to ensure there are sufficient children’s centres to meet local need, and are best placed to decide on provision in their communities. 

“Later this autumn we will launch a consultation offering parents, carers, councils and key stakeholders, such as 4Children, the chance to influence and drive what we expect from children’s centres and where we see them having the greatest impact.”

Case study: Weybridge Sure Start

Becki Hancock, 27, and her 18-month-old son Logan attend Weybridge Sure Start Children’s Centre in Surrey.

I didn’t know anything about children’s centres or what they did until I was pregnant, but it’s been invaluable. I went there for my first midwife appointment and my partner had just left me. I was on my own and there was lots of emotional stuff going on. I told the midwife about it and the next day the manager of the centre called to ask if I’d like to come in. 

The staff helped me find everything I needed. I had a job, as a rehab support worker for people with brain injuries, but they took me to the job centre to help me set up child benefit and tax credits. They also subsidised counselling for me so I only had to pay £10 a week to see someone. That was a big help as my partner of four years had left me soon after I found out I was pregnant. They even offered an informal mediation service and now Logan’s dad comes every week. 

It’s a bold statement but if the centre hadn’t been there at that time I don’t think I’d be the strong woman and mother I am now. 

At the moment Weybridge isn’t under threat of closure but there’s always the risk; it’s quite frightening, the idea that it could close, because having that service for free has been invaluable.”

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