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Council funding for children’s centres cut by a third under coalition

Source: PSE - April/ May 15

A PSE investigation looks into the true extent of cuts faced by children’s centres in the last five years, with many local authorities having to tighten the purse strings for these vital services. David Stevenson reports.

Local authorities across England have reduced their funding for children’s centres by nearly a third on average in the last five years, a PSE investigation has found. 

The severity of the cuts varies significantly across the country, with some councils reducing funding by more than two-thirds, while a small minority that have actually seen an increase in their budgets for such services. 

Using Freedom of Information, PSE requested information from all 151 top-tier councils in England responsible for children’s social care, and received responses from 130 of them. Of these, 84% told us that they had reduced their funding for children’s centres. 

A common response to budget cuts has been cutting services on offer and opening hours, with most authorities doing all they can to avoid the full closure of centres.  

Neil McInroy, the chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) think tank since 2003 and chair of the Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group, told us that our findings echoed the evidence he saw while working on the ‘Due North’ report into health inequalities last autumn.  

He said: “The evidence was of salami-slicing of activities; not full closures but less being done. In terms of health inequalities and later life opportunities and aspirations and achievement, children’s centres are so important – that’s what the evidence told us. 

“If vulnerable people are ‘caught early’, they are less likely to put future demands on public services – they are more likely to be productive workers in stable families, they are less likely to commit crime, and so on. It’s like the issue of youth unemployment, and the weakening of early years education. This is just stocking up problems for the future.” 

Brief history 

Sure Start was launched by the Labour government in 1998, aiming to reduce child poverty and designed to give children “the best possible start in life”. 

Then in 2004, the Ten Year Childcare Strategy was published, moving Sure Start from an area-based initiative to a service offer for all families. It committed the government to the establishment of 3,500 children’s centres by 2010, one in every neighbourhood, but with limited detail on purpose and funding. 

Until 2010-11, children’s centres were funded through the Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare Grant (SSEYCG), which provided £1.65bn revenue and £0.3bn capital funding. This covered more than just children’s centre funding; it also had to fund the local authority statutory requirements regarding childcare. 

In 2011, the Early Intervention Grant (EIG) was introduced. This gave councils a lump sum to spend on a mix of services related to early intervention, including children’s centres but also services like youth justice programmes, with no ring-fencing for each service. 

Councils were then free to choose how the money should best be spent. Alongside this, some of the mandatory requirements on children’s centres were lifted – including the requirement for children’s centres to provide childcare in the most disadvantaged areas. 

Opaque resilience 

Despite the scale of cuts highlighted by our FoI findings, most councils claim they have remained resilient in the face of funding reductions. But this picture becomes very opaque as many local authorities talk about ‘merging’ and ‘de-designating’ centres. 

Labour-run Haringey Council, for example, has seen its funding for children’s centres fall by 74%. Back in 2010 it had 19 centres and three linked sites to offer a range of services, including integrated early education and childcare; family and parenting support; child and family health services; and help for parents/carers to access work and training. But it said the huge scale of spending cuts imposed on it meant it had to make savings of £84m over three years on its £308m annual budget. In the five years under the Coalition, it stated that a total of three children’s centres were “de-designated”. 

“In all three sites, access to services for young children and their families have continued to be offered,” said the local authority. However, only 16 children’s centres remain open.  

Another example highlighting the ambiguity of the situation is Labour-run Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council east of Manchester, which saw funding fall from £5.4m in 2010-11 to £562,610 in 2014-15 – a 90% reduction – according to the figures we were sent. 

However, a council spokesperson told us: “The budget figures do not show the service redesign which has been undertaken to ensure that we continue to reduce demand on services and support the most vulnerable families in the borough.

“As part of a service improvement programme, Tameside MBC undertook a restructure of its early intervention and prevention services into integrated locality teams, using EIG resources. The restructured service includes children’s centre activities as well as a range of other services, delivering interventions to children and families in an integrated way. These are different services in many cases and as such cannot be compared to the former children’s centre funded services.” 

The council said there have been no closures since 2010, when it had 17 designated children’s centres. But following a public consultation that lasted more than six month in late 2013 and early 2014, it redesigned and reorganised its Early Years services, including children’s centres, which resulted in the council retaining seven main designated centres, with the remaining 10 centres linked to one of these and council staff delivering outreach services from the linked sites. 

“No centres have closed; however, the 10 linked sites do have a revised opening hour schedule which is variable at each site and determined by community needs,” said the spokesperson. 

A recent report by the London School of Economics found that the number of Sure Start centres fell from 3,631 in April 2010 to 3,019 in June 2014, though the government insisted that the net loss was only 72 centres, because many were mergers rather than closures. Looking at the two examples of Haringey and Tameside, where 13 centres have been ‘de-designated’, it is possible to understand where the government gets its low closure rate from. 

In our findings, there were six local authorities that could not say exactly how much their funding for children’s centres had reduced in the last five years. Labour-run Sheffield City Council, for example, said that due to its early years’ service being remodelled and children’s centres being managed through internal and external contracts in 2010, it could not establish a comparative baseline for funding. 

However, it said that in 2010 there were 36 children’s centres. “We have considered children’s centre boundaries and re-organised the children’s centre areas from 36 to 16,” a spokeswoman added. 

Conservative-run Trafford Council reduced its children’s centre budget from £4.7m in 2010-11 to £2.3m in 2014-15, a reduction of 51%. Following this, the council has significantly changed its service provision. PSE was told: “In 2010 there were 16 children’s centres. Following consultation in 2012 these were merged to form six children’s centre sites and two community and outreach hubs. In 2015-16, following further consultation, four children’s centres will close (Altrincham, Old Trafford, Sale and Urmston). This will leave two centres (Stretford and Partington).” 

c. Anna Gowthorpe-PA

Fewer, better? 

Speaking to PSE about the children’s centre closures, Naomi Eisenstadt CB, honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford, and the first director of the Sure Start Unit, said: “Once the government removed the ring-fence on what became the EIG – and the whole funding got rolled into local authority settlement – it became really opaque. So, it has become very difficult to find out, precisely, what has been spent on children – let alone children’s centres. That in itself has caused real worry.” 

Eisenstadt told us that she thinks it was a mistake to try to have 3,500 children’s centres, which she admits can be a controversial opinion. 

“What we need is really well-functioning and well-resourced children’s centres in poor areas, with some open-access services. Having fewer but better centres,” PSE was told. 

“The difficulty is that the assumption of ‘fewer, better’ is that you close some and use the money from the closure to make sure the remaining centres are top quality. However, that is not what is going to happen; councils are more likely to use the money for savings.”

 Closing for savings 

The evidence suggests that Eisenstadt’s concerns are well-founded. For example, the Conservative-run Surrey County Council recently agreed that nine of its 47 children’s centres would be de-registered to achieve £250,000 of savings. 

The council said: “As part of a savings target of £11.9m for Children’s & Young People’s Services between 2015 and 2018, a saving of £2.9m from the children’s centres budgets over four years was agreed by the council in February 2014 and the council agreed to go out to consultation on the children’s centres proposals on 17 July 2014. 

“The Cabinet noted the council’s commitment to maintaining children’s centres services but understood that like all services these needed to evolve in order to make full use of all the resources in communities. It was proposed to use existing and additional community venues to deliver the same type and nature of service that was currently delivered from children’s centre buildings as well as increasing the delivery of outreach services in families’ homes.” 

In the last edition of PSE, we also highlighted that Liverpool City Council was to consult on the potential closure of 10 of its 17 remaining children’s centres. 

It said it has been forced to reduce its funding for children’s centres by 55.3%, from £14.6m in 2010-11 to £6.54m in 2014-15, but has been able to stall any potential closures for two years. 

Joe Anderson, mayor of Liverpool, said: “We have secured the future of our 17 registered children’s centres with no job losses, for the next two years. It follows a great deal of hard negotiations and discussions over the last few months with partners and the centres. 

“As I constantly remind people, we have lost 58% of our funding due to central government cuts – a total of £330m – and that means we have to do things differently.” 

The potential closures resulted in a ‘Save Liverpool Children’s Centres’ group being formed, replicating similar campaigns elsewhere in the country. 

Eisenstadt said that despite the changes being made to the children’s centre landscape, she is enormously proud that it is very difficult to close them “because people love them”. 

“They are the most popular public service established in the last 30 years,” she said. “So local councillors will all say they want to keep their children’s centres because it is a democratic process. But in keeping them and thinning them and thinning them, they get so weak as to be not a good use of money.” 

Chrildren's Centre

The issue of quality 

Dr Kitty Stewart, associate professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, who recently co-authored a report called ‘The Coalition’s Social Policy Record: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015’, stated that for early years, the Coalition’s rhetoric about the importance of early childhood and the need for a greater emphasis on services has not really been matched by action. 

The paper cited data from the Childcare Providers Survey showing that the number of places available for young children increased by 8% from 2010-13, driven by increases in full daycare and nursery class provision (although daycare provision in children’s centres has been much reduced). 

Dr Stewart agrees it makes sense to concentrate Sure Start on deprived areas, but also thinks that within those areas, it should be for everyone. 

“It would be nice to have a children’s centre in every area, but perhaps that is a luxury that current public finances don’t allow,” she said. “I agree that the quality of the ones in deprived areas is the most important thing. But what you’ve probably found is that some authorities are protecting services better than others.” 

For example, Herefordshire Council’s funding for children’s centres has dropped by nearly 80% in the last five years, and now two of its sites have been heavily criticised by Ofsted. 

Since 2010-11, the local authority’s children’s centre funding has fallen by 79%, from £2.3m a year to £480,229. The council serves a population of more than 180,000 and runs 10 children’s centres – a number that has not decreased despite the drop in funding. 

Some sites, however, are operating with reduced hours. For instance, South City’s South Meadow centre is now mainly a supervised contact hub with a “much reduced” children’s centre delivery. 

During two recent Ofsted inspections, Ryefield Children’s Centre in Ross-on-Wye was rated ‘inadequate’ and Golden Valley Children’s Centre, Peterchurch, was rated ‘requires improvement’. 

At Ryefield, the inspectors noted that much of the information provided to the centre by the local authority relates to the whole county and not specifically to the area around Ryefield. “Leaders are not therefore able to effectively plan and evaluate the impact of services,” said Ofsted. On top of this, leaders hold an “overly optimistic” view of the centre’s performance. This is because “monitoring is poor” and plans to improve the centre “do not link closely to local needs”. 

In response, Cllr Jeremy Millar, Herefordshire Council’s cabinet member for children’s services, said: “Although disappointed, we accept the reports as an accurate appraisal of the children’s centres visited. 

“We have taken immediate action to address the most pressing matters and will be working hard with partners to achieve sustainable improvements.” 

Asked what the future looks like for children’s centres, Eisenstadt said it will get a lot worse. 

“People are really going to have to take some tough decisions and hold their nerve,” she said. “If we were progressive and took a public health approach towards children’s centres we would try to spend the money where it is most needed – we wouldn’t try to have a universal service. 

“What we are doing is trying to make sure that every child gets a spoonful of rice even if they are hungry or not, and that means that the kids who’re really hungry don’t get enough to make a difference.”

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