What difference do they make? A big one.

Posted by Dan Breslin / Tuesday 16 February 2016 / Children's centres
young girl playing in the yard

It is hard to escape stories about how much pressure is on local authority budgets. Whether it be the cost of childrens social care or being able to keep libraries open, just how much money is available to fund services grabs headlines. It is why Action for Children, National Childrens Bureau and the Childrens Society will soon publish new analysis of just how far funding has fallen since 2010.

This will all be brought into sharper context as local authorities start making decisions about budgets ahead of the new financial year. One of the questions many councillors will be asking about local services as they weigh up where to allocate funding will be what difference do they make?

For one local service in particular this is a question that has been asked many times before.

What difference do childrens centres make has been asked many times before.  There hasnt always been a simple answer. But the national evaluation of childrens centres has sought to provide some clarity. With a new research report published just before Christmas, a talk by the researchers from NatCen provided some interesting insights.

Evidence from the study show that centres help to improve outcomes for childrens behavior and mothersphysical and mental health. Interestingly, these outcomes were stronger for families of high financial disadvantage. As the Government looks for how to improve life chances for the most disadvantaged, they could do worse than starting with childrens centres.

As centres become more targeted in their work, many of the services that are open to all families remain the most popular including Stay and Play, Play and Learn, and Health Visitor drop-in clinics. It would seem amiss of government to remove the option to provide these classes out of guidance on childrens centre when they consult on their future later this year.

The research showed that centres that had more secure budgets, and hadn't seen cuts, had the better outcomes. Perhaps not a big surprise. There are few centres who wouldnt be able to do more with greater resources.

But as local authorities grapple with spending cuts of up to 27 per cent in the next few years it is unlikely many will be able to substantially boost funding. As our recent Beyond the Building series highlights it is now about thinking creatively and being bold.

This means using a range of local facilities to provide different programmes, as long as they are suitable to families. It means keeping classes that all families can use, so centres dont become seen as a service for problem families. It also means prioritising work in the early years, to give children the best start in life.

Deciding what difference a local service makes is rarely going to be easy to answer. But childrens centres have made a strong case. By thinking creatively and continuing to help children have the best start in life it will be hard to overlook them as a local priority.

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