Margaret Lochrie discovers a centre which puts the family first
In the lunchtime lull at the family centre in Bromyard, a little girl puts on a glittering frock from the dressing-up box, before settling down at one of the activity tables with just two other children and a helper. The other children have departed for lunch and the shabbiness of the playgroup furniture is exposed by the midday sunshine.
This is Hope - Holistic Opportunities for Play and Education - serving a deprived area in rural Herefordshire, where better-off and poorer families come together with their children for playgroup and to take part in discussion groups and courses. Some also get home-based support. Poverty, heroin addiction and unemployment are part of the fabric of the local community. The family centre is combating these problems and the success of its efforts, like the little girl's dress, shines out.
Hope, the brainchild of manager Sheenagh Davis, began as a weekly discussion group in a church hall. Then, after raising pound;40,000, the demountable building was placed on land next to her husband's garage. A warren of rooms above the garage provides classrooms for basic skills and ICT training. Downstairs, one of the mothers has just started work in the shop. The project is now part-funded as a mini-Sure Start programme.
This could be considered an example of personalisation, a key principle of the Government's five-year plan, which aims to tailor services to individual needs. For Hope, this extends to picking children up, helping with housing and being there for families in crisis.
The early-years aspect of the five-year plan sets out a vision of a children's centre in every community combined with out-of-school care from age five, more opportunities for parents of under-twos to stay at home, 12.5 hours of flexible free nursery education and care and better parenting support. This is a policy which will be welcomed by those who argue for "joined-up" care and education, those who worry about targeted initiatives at the expense of universal provision and by parents who cannot find affordable childcare.
But the realisation of this vision is still some way off. As the Department for Education and Skills acknowledges, inequalities in childcare distribution mean that the best local-authority areas offer six times as many childcare places as the worst, and 44 per cent of poor families live outside the areas which have received the most funding. The Chancellor's summer Spending Review only boosted the number of children's centres from 1,700 to 2,500. And the 12.5 hours of publicly-funded childcare still leaves the UK behind other European countries.
The DfES is said to be working on a 10-year plan for early years, to be unveiled with the autumn pre-budget statement. There will also be guidance on how the flexible nursery provision offer will work. Many hope that the resources will finally be there to secure a better and more universal service for all.
For Hope, not currently designated to become a children's centre, this would be good news. Sure Start has provided some funding for a new demountable building, but not for new equipment, and funding for the out-of-school club will run out shortly. It is a constant headache. This centre provides a distinctive example of putting people at the heart of public services and those responsible will be looking to the Chancellor this autumn, with hope in their own hearts.
Margaret Lochrie is a director of Capacity, a public interest body for children's services