Parents have explained how Sure Start children’s centres have been a “lifeline” for them, as the Sutton Trust reveals as many as 1,000 have closed since 2009.
Sure Start is a national network of children’s centres built up before 2010 to support disadvantaged children and their families. These centres have offered parents a support network, as well as continued guidance in the early years of bringing up children.
Between August 2009 and October 2017, official government data recorded a 14% drop in centre numbers, from 3,632 to 3,123. But a report published today [5 April] for the Trust by Oxford University academics finds this is likely to be a big underestimate as official data does not keep up with closures announced locally and in areas that have not had closures, local authorities have had to reduce services and staffing.
Some local councils are still considering further closures and in response, parents have set up campaigning groups to highlight the impact of losing these centres - such as National Save Our Children’s Centres group and Save Oxfordshire Children’s Centres on Facebook - while others have started online petitions to gather support in their local area.
“The threat of closure is really worrying as I would be lost without the centres, you’re extremely vulnerable after having a child and these centres make you feel human again,” says Alka Dass, 42, mum to two-year-old Jai, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. “I do not want to lose the centres as I am very sure I wouldn’t be here without them.”
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The Sutton Trust is now calling on the government to complete a review of the children’s centre programme, as well as maintaining a national register of children’s centres, which establishes minimum levels of provision.
Alka has used her local children centres since she gave birth, attending a mix of those run by her council and those run by Action for Children. In July 2017, Buckinghamshire County Council started a public consultation to close a number of centres. This is still in consideration, so Alka has been campaigning to stop the closures.
“They have been a lifeline for me as I lost my mum two weeks before my son was born. I then moved to High Wycombe eight weeks later and it was a really difficult time,” she says. “I didn’t have any family support and found it difficult talking to others about what had happened. My husband was grieving in his own way. Not having my mother around meant I really needed support and I was fortunate enough to attend the parenting course at the children’s centre.”
Through one of the Sure Start children’s centres, Alka was referred to a ‘Healthy Minds’ programme after suffering from postnatal depression. Through the centre she also accessed physiotherapy for her son who has hypermobility, and they attend weekly drop-in social sessions.
“My son has grown in confidence through the centres,” she adds. “He was really clingy and shy when I first started taking him to sessions; they’re really important and that’s not understood by local councils. They seem to think these are just social sessions where our children play and we just stand around. Well that’s not the case at all, as I learned how to interact with my son and play with him.”
Zara Dick, 32, from Leicester, has also used the services of Sure Start centres in the past, and she noticed a big reduction in provision between the births of her two sons, four-year-old Jacob and four-month-old Leo. With Jacob, she was able to drop in to her local centre for a weekly weigh-in. “If you were ever worried about anything to do with your baby or had concerns, you could just access that through a Sure Start centres,” she says. “But now, with Leo, it’s really different. There just isn’t that service; you’re told after they see you at the six-week-check that you’ll see them at your one-year check.”
When Zara gave birth to Jacob, she suffered from postnatal depression (PND) and was able to access a support group through the Sure Start centre called ‘Mums In Mind’. “This was such an important part of my recovery from PND,” she says. “Now there’s no ‘Mums in Mind’ and soon, no Sure Start centres”.
She credits the centres with helping her meet friends and also believes they are crucial for first-time mums to help them navigate parenthood. “Without them, women will feel much more isolated,” she explains. “If it’s your first child and you have no one to go to for help or places that don’t cost money, that’s bad. There’ll be a higher likelihood of postnatal depression and yet more services being cut back.”
Another mum, Clare Freemantle, 37, from Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, has also noticed the differences in levels of support available between the births of her two children. When her eldest Scott, now seven, was born, she used many of the local centres regularly. She used them for playgroups, baby massage sessions, singalong groups, breastfeeding support groups, sessions on weaning and days out over the school holidays.
“The sessions certainly got me out of the house and meeting other mums,” she says. “I had an emergency c-section with my first and it snowed heavily for four weeks after he was born so those first few weeks were pretty isolating. Having those groups available and having the Sure Start staff come out and visit me and introduce me to the service helped hugely in getting me out and about again.” The mums she met at those sessions are still her friends to this day.
However, in the three years between her kids being born, Clare’s local children’s centre was closed. “There were no centres near me anymore, the nearest was a 20-minute drive,” she says. “The outreach groups they were still running were being replaced by volunteer-run groups, which just never felt as welcoming.” The groups Clare did find when her daughter was born needed to charge a fee to keep running. They were also busier, because there were fewer, and sometimes she couldn’t get into the class.
In their analysis, the Sutton Trust surveyed local authorities for the reasons behind the changes in provision. Financial pressures came top in 84% of local authorities, with 69% reporting a budget decrease in the last two years. Change of focus’ came a close second at 80%,with local authorities reporting a move away from access for all, towards targeting of individual high need families. According to the report, services are now “hollowed out” and much more thinly spread with closures creating a “postcode lottery” of early years provision.
“It was a huge shame that such a valuable service was shut down,” adds Clare. “Making them further away and less accessible to all was never going to help the parents who most needed the service.”