Sure Start centres have been disappearing at double the rate government ministers claim, new research by a top education charity suggests.
The Sutton Trust says its analysis shows as many as 1,000 of the vital early years centres have been shut down since 2009.
The national database recorded a drop of around 500 (14%) but the Trust’s ‘Stop Start’ study, by a group of Oxford University academics, says this “may understate the true figure”.
The drop is “more than 30%”, they say, and centres are “much more thinly spread” across the UK.
Labour said ministers should be “ashamed” while the Lib Dems said Theresa May “must act to stem the tide” of closures.
The Trust warns of “decline, both in numbers and services, but also adaptation and a struggle to survive”.
It said: “Many closures announced locally were not yet reflected in the database: our survey showed a 16% drop.
“If we only count ‘registered centres’, the drop since 2009 was more than 30%, suggesting that more than 1,000 centres nationally might have closed.
“There is now growing evidence of a further wave of large-scale closures in the pipeline as a ‘tipping point’ is reached.”
Sure Start centres, a flagship innovation of Tony Blair’s administration, offer families help and advice on child health, parenting, money, training and employment.
Researchers asked councils why centres were closing and 80% cited a move away from access-for-all towards targeting of individual high-need families.
The vast majority of authorities (84%) said they were experiencing financial pressures and 69% reported a budget decrease in the last two years.
The Trust’s report said: “Services are now ‘hollowed out’ - much more thinly spread, often no longer ‘in pram-pushing distance’. The focus of centres has changed to referred families with high need, and provision has diversified as national direction has weakened, with local authorities employing a variety of strategies to survive in an environment of declining resources and loss of strategic direction.”
The report noted that in August 2009, 54% of all centres were located in the 30% most disadvantaged areas, but by late 2017, the overall national picture was “radically different”.
It said: “Indeed, it is difficult to see it any longer as a truly ‘national programme’ as there is so much local variation in what is now provided - not so much a ‘postcode lottery’ as dependent on which local authority serves your area.”
The report concluded most closures were in a few areas and by 2017, 16 authorities closing 50% or more of their centres “accounted for 55% of the total number of closures nationally”.
It added that measured on the basis of income deprivation affecting families with children, there had been “only marginal change” since 2009 in the location of centres in the poorest 30% of neighbourhoods (with 54% in 2009 and 52% in 2017) - although there were “critically fewer centres in all areas”.
The Government should keep a national register of children’s centres and guarantee a minimum provision level, the Trust argues.
Sutton Trust founder Sir Peter Lampl said: “It is a serious issue that the services thatSure 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% in the number ofSure 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 0-5 age group.”
Tracy Brabin MP, Labour’s Shadow Early Years Minister, said: “Tory Ministers should be ashamed that it took this report to expose the true extent of the damage their policies have caused.
“Sure Start provides support and education for families who need it most, yet as this report shows, Conservative cuts have created a postcode lottery in Sure Start provision.
Lib Dem education spokesperson Layla Moran, meanwhile, added: “Children’s centres provide invaluable advice and support for families. They have been shown to deliver health and educational benefits and play a crucial role in reducing social inequality.
“This issue is an absolute priority for me. I saw every one of the children’s centres in my constituency close in the year before I became an MP and I know what a devastating impact that has had for some vulnerable local families. This report provides yet more evidence that the Government must act to stem this tide of closures.”