1,000 children’s centres lost since 2009

New research by the Sutton Trust has revealed that as many as 1,000 Sure Start centres across the country have closed since 2009, leading to the charity warning of a ‘postcode lottery’ of early years provision.

The Sure Start Children’s Centre programme was introduced in 1998 by the Labour government, combining services for young children and their families ‘under one roof’. Initially targeting the most disadvantaged areas in England, the programme was later extended to all areas and by August 2009, there were 3,632 centres, with 54 per cent of them located in the 30 per cent most disadvantaged areas.

Although government data recorded a 14 per cent drop in centre numbers between August 2009 and October 2017, from 3,632 to 3,123, the Sutton Trust’s Stop Start report says this is ‘a big underestimate’ because there is no clear definition of a ‘children’s centre’. By 2017, 16 authorities who had closed more than half of their centres accounted for 55 per cent of the total number of closures.

Citing local mergers, the report says that many of the original centres have been converted to ‘linked sites’, offering fewer services and only counted by some authorities. Also recognising the negative impact of local reorganisations and service reductions, the Sutton Trust also found that local authorities have had to reduce services and staffing if fortunate enough to not have had closures. This has led to a reduction of services and staff, leading to more parents having to rely on public transport to find a centre offering what they need.

Financial pressures were mooted as the main reason for changes in provision, with 84 per cent of local authorities giving this as the main reason, with 69 per cent of authorities reporting a budget decrease in the last two years. Behind financial constraints, 80 per cent reported a ‘change of focus’, with councils reporting a move away from access for all towards targeting of individual high need families, in some cases with a much wider age range (0-19).

Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, said: “Good quality early years provision makes a substantial difference in the development of children especially those who come from the poorest homes. It is a serious issue that the services that Sure Start centres offer are much more thinly spread than they were a decade ago. Additionally, since 2010 there has been a precipitous decline of 30 per cent in the number of Sure Start centres. Thousands of families are missing out on the vital support they provide. The government should complete its long-promised review of the programme.  Instead of trying to serve all age groups, children’s centres should reconnect with their original purpose of promoting child and family development for the up-to-five age group.”

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