Verdict: Not so Sure Start

31st October 2008 at 00:00
Architects say that ambitious plans to open 3,500 children's centres by 2010 have meant too many corners have been cut

The government's flagship Sure Start children's centres programme has been criticised by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) for pushing local authorities to fling up buildings without proper consultation.

A report based on 101 centres found that while on the whole the buildings were fit for purpose, architects and design professionals rated few as good or excellent and said one in four were below par.

Particular concerns were: insufficient storage, particularly for buggies, poor quality spaces for staff and adults and unimaginative, small outdoor areas with little weather protection and poor connections to indoor play spaces.

Elements that were rated highly were: light, atmosphere, children's play equipment and furniture, windows and decoration.

The report said that problems had been created by the two-year turnaround time demanded by the Government. This had not allowed enough time for local authorities to carry out proper consultation or find the best sites. There was also the complexity of different providers using the same site, which made it difficult to create accurate briefs. Uncertain funding was also a problem when authorities had to find additional cash.

Parents and staff were far more positive about the centres. They rated 78 as good to excellent (only eight gained this ranking from professionals) and said two were poor.

The report stated: "Parents benefit strongly from new facilities and are therefore likely to be the most positive about them. Staff were slightly more critical because they have to cope with problems on a day-to-day level but they are also glad to have new facilities."

There are now almost 3,000 children's centres. The target is for 3,500 by 2010. A consultation to enshrine them legally as a universal service - similar to schools - is under way and closes next week.

The Cabe report recommended a "fundamental shift" away from speed and cost being the main drivers of centre design saying that long-term quality was more important and consultation was crucial.

Outdoor play space was an issue and the report recommended that the Government set a minimum provision for all new facilities for children's day care and education.

It added to the calls for outdoor play to be taken more seriously. From the start of consultation on the early years foundation stage, the new curriculum for under fives that became statutory in September, the Government has been criticised for failing to make provision of outdoor space mandatory. It said it was not possible because the providers least likely to be able to meet this requirement are likely to be small settings or childminders in cities where childcare is most needed.

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