It is surely a testament to the value of Sure Start Children's Centres that despite significant cuts within local authority budgets, and the removal of the dedicated Sure Start grant, many of them have continued to thrive ever more at the heart of their communities.
Based on over 500 responses, 4Children's Sure Start Children's Centre Census 2012 (http://www.4children.org.uk/Resources/Detail/Sure-Start-Childrens-Centres-Census-2012) found that whilst it has been challenging, many children's centres are continuing to function as a model for early intervention as they succeed in delivering more for less.
Early help is important for all children but vital for those who start life at a disadvantage. Encouragingly, findings from the Foundation Stage Profile of children as they start school shows that the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers has closed by 3% in the last three years as a result of better early years support including Sure Start.
Nevertheless, whilst many centres have shown much resilience amidst a difficult environment overcoming fears around mass closure, our census reveals that centres are still in a highly fluid state with their sustainability in doubt for a significant number.
Whilst 60% of Sure Start Centres said that they were 'coping' with significant budget reductions, 50% of centres that said that their finances were less sustainable and 11% of centres indicated that they were struggling. As a result, 20% of centres were having to reduce the numbers of qualified teachers whilst a further 20% said that they would have to reduce childcare staff. In turn, the census finds Sure Start Centres increasingly reliant upon volunteers with 60% increasing volunteer numbers and 50% reporting that volunteers' hours had increased. Whilst the active involvement of volunteers is undoubtedly welcomed, their presence within children's centres must not serve to replace the skills of trained professionals.
These reductions come at a time of unprecedented reforms for centres - an increasing focus on targeted support for disadvantaged families, the introduction of payments by results and for many, the reorganization of their services into clusters across local areas; all moves that have the potential to improve the cost effectiveness and value of a centre but ones that need careful managing. Such changes at this time can only add to a group of already anxious parents and staff.
Many parent groups worry that the cluster approach will leave their centres without the services they need close by. Concurrently, our Children's Centre Census found that 75% of managers felt a move from universal to targeted support presented some of the greatest challenges for the year ahead with a similar number saying that payments by results was their biggest concern over the coming year..
The local authorities who have prioritised Sure Start above other services know how important these services are. And twelve years on from the initial conception of Sure Start Children's centres, the true potential of Sure Start Children's Centres is only just being realised.
But if they are going to retain their position centre stage they must rise to the challenge. The priority must now be to maintain and build on the successes of children's centres - to put them at the heart of delivering early help and intervention and for local authorities, wider professionals and communities to continue to nurture and extend the reach of Sure Start Children's Centres for older children from 0-19.
Sure Start is still in its infancy and needs continued support as it grows up. The most disadvantaged children and families deserve nothing less.