Posted: 01 February 2012

The role and future of Sure Start children's centres

Yesterday the policy team at The Children’s Society held our first early years policy conference for internal staff, mainly from our children’s centres across the country. It was a fascinating day kicked off with a speech from Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, followed by workshops led by Department for Education officials and children’s centre workers.

Polly Toynbee has long been a champion of Sure Start children’s centres. It was great to hear her say to a room full of practitioners that the introduction of Sure Start was a 'fantastic vision of a wonderful children's centre in pram-pushing distance of every family'.

She added that the Sure Start centres 'tick every box' in terms of improving early education, the big society, building strong communities and better parenting.

journalist Polly Toynbee speaking before dozens of children's centre workersSpending cuts and an upside-down pyramid

However, Toynbee expressed her concerns that government spending on education can be illustrated by an upside-down pyramid. The most funds are spent on the oldest students for further education, while the least are spent on our youngest children.

She also highlighted widely held concerns that local government expenditure cuts have led to cuts to children’s centre services as their funding is no longer ring-fenced.

This concern is also raised in recent research by 4Children and Daycare Trust showing that around 250 children’s centres are expected to close and over half will be providing a reduced service over the next year.

Children's centres working with nurseries and schools

Despite these concerns this was overwhelmingly a positive day. Staff shared fantastic practice of how children’s centres work effectively with nurseries and schools, and how they provide much-needed support to vulnerable families.

For example, practitioners from our Gateway Children’s Centre in Bradford outlined the Every Child a Talker (ECAT) programme that aims to improve the language and communication skills of young children.

The programme develops their staff's skills and works closely with parents to deepen their understanding and involvement in their child’s language development. The detailed monitoring that goes along with this programme means that staff is much more able to identify early signs of speech, language and communication delays, and put in place action plans for extra support.

The backbone of early intervention services

As a whole, the day was a crucial reminder of the fantastic support that children’s centres provide to children and families, particularly those in disadvantaged areas.

Children’s centres are the backbone of early intervention services in this country and there is considerable research evidence that investing in the early years is crucial to improving outcomes throughout childhood and beyond.

Despite this, early years services are still not a government expenditure priority and children's centres across the country face significant cuts.

By Laura Rodrigues, Policy Officer

By Laura Rodrigues - Policy team

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