A damning report on the government’s "short-term" and "disparate" policies for early years has been published this morning by MPs.
The Commons education select committee report on Sure Start children’s centres says that the government had set out a "core purpose" for the centres that was too vague and coupled it with weak accountability.
The centres are now used by more than one million children a year.
“Education is too important to wait until children reach school age,” said Graham Stuart, committee chairman. “The government needs to prove that it is serious about closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children by setting out coherent, long-term thinking on early years and children’s centres.”
The report adds that children’s centres should only be closed as a last resort. In April 2010 there were 3,631 Sure Start children’s centres in England, offering a combination of health, childcare, employment and parenting services. By April 2013 this had dropped to 3,116. But the report found some confusion over the numbers – because there have been more reorganisations than outright closures.
“Children’s centres are held in great affection”, the report goes on. “Although there is a strong popular image of what a good centre is or should be, we found a structure in need of clarity. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to think of a children’s centre as a single model replicated in all areas.”
The report identifies three broad types of children’s centres: a nursery school with a full set of additional services, a primary school that ran a children’s centre under an extended schools model and family centres that offer no childcare or early education, but offer family support.
Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, there have been significant changes. But on possibly the most controversial decision, to remove ring-fenced funding for children’s centres, the committee backed the government, saying that it made sense given the different ways in which centres are run.
The report concludes: “There has been, and continues to be, too much short-term and disparate government policy in the area of early years. Too much re-organisation of services impedes professional relationships and communication.
"Changes in funding streams also lead to short-term contracts and distract centres from their crucial work with disadvantaged children and families.”
Responding to the findings, Anne Longfield, chief executive of children’s charity 4Children, said: “This report hits the nail right on the head and backs up what families have been telling us around the country; children’s centres are essential for them and their children and they must be seen as a priority.”