Sure Start centres hurt but hang on in there
For many months the future has been hazy at best. But now, finally, there is some clarity over the future of Sure Start children's centres. New data obtained by TES suggests that more than half have had their budgets cut this year as councils struggle to keep services for under-fives running.
While almost #163;96 million has been sliced from children's centres' funding, according to figures acquired from 133 councils - an undoubtedly painful cut of 10 per cent on average - the widespread closures widely predicted have not taken place.
Although the Government said it had protected the budget for children's centres this year, it removed the ringfence that meant councils had to spend that cash on the centres. Instead, authorities were given the money, together with cash for other youth and children's services, in a new overall early intervention grant. Although the funding for children's centres was protected, the total sum available is about 11 per cent less than last year.
But despite predictions that as many as 250 children's centres could close, the authorities that took part in the survey revealed just four had closed in the first six months of this financial year, with one due to close next year. But they added that the future of more than one in four centres is currently under review.
Campaigners claim that many more closures were proposed by local authorities in the spring, but local opposition caused a rethink. Generally, councils have kept buildings open but cut back on services.
Indeed, there is a growing concern that the current situation is just a holding position and more cutbacks - and possible closures - are on the way.
"We are fully aware that this is not the end by any stretch of the imagination. Some centres have been protected this year, but, in the second year of this new world, councils will be making bigger cuts," said Megan Pacey, chief executive of Early Education, a national body for early-years practitioners.
"It's very difficult to get an accurate fix on it because each centre is individual and has its own way to reduce costs. Some are cutting services, some are slimming down the range of services, some are getting rid of things completely.
"Local authorities are acutely aware that the work children's centres do is absolutely vital, and they are trying to maintain as much of that as possible, but faced with cuts a lot are re- managing and restructuring."
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that plans to hold the early intervention grant at its current rate of #163;2.2 billion in 201415 would mean a cut in real terms of 20 per cent.
Others have also voiced concerns that the worst is yet to come. Sharon Hodgson, a shadow education minister, recently published a survey of authorities' future plans, which found that 47 children's centres are due to shut next year.
"What I'm concerned about is some authorities are masking closures," she said. "They realise it gets bad headlines if they close a centre. On the other hand, they can trim back.
"Trimming back a bit is not as bad, but some centres are hollowed-out shells of their former selves. I accept we have difficult economic times, but what I'm calling for is the reinstatement of the ringfence around Sure Start children's centres' funding within the early intervention grant. The Government calls its removal localism, but it can't abdicate responsibility."
But Matt Dunkley, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, told a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on Sure Start centres that keeping the ringfence would have hampered directors, who were on average being expected to find cuts of 14-15 per cent of their entire department's budget.
He said that, with a number of income sources shrinking and an increased need to spend money on child protection, there were hard choices to make. "It is very welcome that ringfences on that funding were removed because it gives us flexibility to move it around. We are seeing new models emerging of children's centre management and delivery," he said.
See next week's TES for a feature on the future of Sure Start
During the past 12 years, a network of 3,600 children's centres has been established.
At first, the centres provided a "core offer" of childcare integrated with early education, family health services, parenting support including outreach and links to Jobcentre Plus.
Later, as the scheme spread to areas where there were few deprived families, "phase 3" centres were expected to co-ordinate existing services.
The Coalition has said it is committed to a universal network of Sure Start centres, but is moving from the concept of "core offer" to "core purpose".
An early draft of a consultation on the centres' core purpose defined it as child development and school-readiness, parenting aspirations and parenting skills, child and family health, and life chances.
Once finalised, the new core purpose will be part of a broader consultation later this year on updating the statutory guidance for Sure Start centres.