A Sure Start, but how likely is a happy ending?
A chill day in South Yorkshire. The children's centre manager is used to dealing with families coping with aggression, debt or drug abuse, but it is council dithering that is driving her out of her job.
"I don't know anything," says Megan (not her real name). "The contracts of all staff end in March and we've not heard one way or another what is going to happen. People are looking around for other jobs. I've applied for a post in another authority. These are uncertain times."
A recent survey of children's centre managers by charities 4Children and the Daycare Trust reveals that Megan is far from alone. It estimated that 250 out of 3,500 centres will close this year and almost all face funding cuts that could lead to redundancies.
The latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on access to pre-primary education across the developed world highlights the strong impact of this sector on results later in childhood. So what is happening to England's Sure Start initiative in this era of austerity, and how will it fare under the Coalition?
The Government insists that funding for Sure Start has remained the same at #163;1.1 billion a year. This is true, but the change is that the ring-fence, which protected funds for children's centres, has been removed. Local authorities now have a single pot for both Sure Start and the services funded by the early-intervention grant, and it is the latter's funding that has been slashed from #163;2.5 billion to #163;2.2 billion a year.
This is a controversial move. Prior to last year's general election, a report from the then children, schools and families select committee said: "We consider that it would be unwise to remove the ring-fence around children's centres funding in the short to medium term; putting centres at the mercy of local vicissitudes would risk radically different models and levels of service developing across the country, with differences out of proportion to the variation in community needs."
But ministers point out that authorities still have to meet local needs for children's centres, and must consult communities before closing or changing them.
Yet Frank Field, the Labour MP who carried out a review of poverty for the Coalition, warned recently that unless the Government stepped in, Sure Start centres would be "decimated" by council cuts.
Megan has little time for political wrangling and has not told the families she works with about her worries. After all, she says, they have enough to cope with.
"Some families should be dealt with by social services, but we're dealing with them because social services is a mess," she says. "If the centre suddenly closes, it will rip that support away and those families will slip through the system.
"Who is to blame? The Government or the local authority? I lay the blame at both their doors, but that doesn't help us."
Between 1999 and 2003, 524 Sure Start children's centre programmes were set up in the most deprived areas of the country. The aim was to improve the chances of children living in poverty by giving families a single place for early education, childcare, health workers and parenting support.
After a few years, fears were voiced that the initiative was not reaching children in poverty who lived outside these areas. As a result, the programme was rolled out to a total of 3,500 neighbourhoods. Around 1,800 of these centres are on school sites, although not necessarily run by schools.
Colin Coleman, head of Linaker Primary School and Children's Centre in Southport, Merseyside, says that if centres close there will be a huge impact on schools. "We have evidence that children who went to the centre perform better on average at the end of Reception than those who don't.
"The whole point of children's centres was to get children ready to start school and to make an impact on their starting points. It's only been going here for four and a half years so the impact is only beginning to show, but the reality is that the children's centre has the potential to make a huge difference.
"The most important thing they do is not the space, time or activities, but the aspiration. Families learn to aspire. It isn't about ticking boxes and providing a range of things to make these families' lives a bit more comfortable - it is about more than that."
As state funding shrinks, some areas are looking around for other ways of delivering - and funding - services. Mr Coleman's school has set up a registered charity, Linaker Links Community Trust, which will raise money to provide and protect the services needed locally.
Charging wealthier parents has also been suggested, as has outsourcing the management of children's centres to other organisations. This would be nothing new. Already, 300 centres are run by national volunteer organisations, with around 100 more managed by local volunteer groups.
Many argue that this model works, but with the ring-fenced funding removed, the centres are facing economically choppy waters and charities may be unwilling - and unable - to launch the lifeboats.
But it cannot be ignored that the universal nature of Sure Start has not been without controversy. Both the National Evaluation of Sure Start based at Birkbeck, London University, and research by Durham University found no evidence of an effect on children's educational attainment at the age of five.
Yet Professor Edward Melhuish, executive director of the National Evaluation, says Sure Start local programmes, the forerunners of the first children's centres, have brought proven benefits to children and families, but that the real gains will not be seen for many years.
"At three years old, children in areas with a Sure Start programme had better social development, better parenting and some elements of better health than similar children in other areas.
"At the start of school, parenting was still better and there was better child health, so by and large there seemed to be benefits to those families and those children," he says.
But he adds: "The evidence with all kinds of intervention is that what makes a difference is high-intensity and good-quality services. So if there is only so much money available, I would suggest it is better to ensure that a few high-intensity, high-quality programmes would have more impact than a thin spread across the whole population."
One thing is certain - Megan is confident that her centre has an impact. "The area around here is predominantly social housing. Young mothers were afraid to come out of their homes and had nowhere much to go. Now they bring their children here and socialise," she says.
"We also do outreach work - these are families suffering with domestic abuse, alcohol and drug problems, and the children are often on child protection plans. We are having an impact on those families but we need longer. Taking it away now means we won't have made a big enough difference."
COMMUNITY VIEW - 'Closures would be a disaster'
The Thomas Coram Centre (main picture) in King's Cross, London, has been told it is safe. But Camden Council has decided to close two of its other 17 children's centres as part of a #163;3.2 million cut to early-years services.
Bernadette Duffy (inset), the centre's head and a vice-president of the organisation Early Education, says: "In three years' time, primary schools will be picking up the pieces. Early years has been very well supported and children start school very well able to cope with Reception, so schools have higher expectations of Reception children and children are achieving more as a result.
"If you remove the structure there is a danger they won't. There has been a lot of money put into early years and the disaster would be if they closed them."
Ms Duffy has the support of parents. For example, Graeme Weston, who says the centre brought the community together. "At first, the Thomas Coram Centre was simply a place to go; like many people in the area, we live in a small flat," he says.
"Physically having somewhere to go is very valuable and this is somewhere that is free and family-friendly, with space for your kids. It seems a shame that children are having to bear the cuts through no fault of their own."
#163;300m - Funding cut for the early intervention grant.