Children’s centres: flexible support for every family

Posted by Rachael Truswell / Thursday 19 November 2015 / Children's centres
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Children’s centres are so important to families and children across communities. They nurture children’s emotional, social and physical wellbeing helping them develop into healthy toddlers, inquisitive children and independent adults. The programmes of support offered to families and children have a remarkable impact on a child’s life chances.

But, local authority spending on children’s centres has fallen by 35 per cent since 2010. Future generations must be able to continue to reap the rewards offered by children’s centres, especially the help offered in the early years. To remain an important part of local communities, children’s centres must begin to transform the ways in which they deliver programmes and reach families.

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Children’s centres can expand their work by using other local buildings, with services popping up in a range of community facilities. Children’s centres are not for one type of family, living in one type of neighbourhood, needing support with one type of problem. It makes sense for them to deliver support in the places that parents find easiest to get to. If children’s centres programmes and classes were to be hosted in other community venues such as local libraries or church halls, it would allow them to deliver support in a more flexible and responsive way.

This means that classes, like stay and play, could be taken out to a range of locations. But we have to make sure that even if services are more flexible they are still welcoming to all families. Getting families into services are a vital way to be able to identify problems families may be facing early on.

Unless parents feel welcomed, they are not going to visit their local centres. One way to achieve this would be for children’s centres to play a bigger role in the antenatal period, as a base for health visitors. Relationships between staff and families will already have been developed in the earliest stages of parenthood, so parents would feel at ease to bring their child along to other drop in sessions.

But problems don’t just emerge overnight, or in the first few years. We need to be thinking about how other local services can play a bigger role in identifying low level problems. The free early education entitlement, 15 hours of free childcare for some two, and all three and four years olds, has almost universal engagement with local families. Childcare providers are well placed to refer families to children’s centres if they are seeing problems. Some already do, but we need to make this the default.

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What will pull all these services in the same direction? A shared goal. This has to be focused and ambitious and what is more ambitious than wanting every child to reach an excellent level of development before they start school? Children cannot make the most of school without communication skills, good health and social wellbeing.

We must make sure we get a nationwide understanding of what children’s centres should be doing to help children achieve developmental milestones before starting school. An outcomes framework would be a natural fit. It would give local authorities a one track aim for commissioning services and make sure they are judging centres on the difference and value they add to every child’s start in life.

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