A child's early years are vital to their chances later in life. Learning to walk and talk, starting to make friends and build relationships outside the immediate family and developing a desire for independence all happen in this period before school. Because this is such an important time, children and their parents need support.
Children's centres serve more than a million children and their families every year by providing a welcoming space where parents can find much needed support that reduces inequalities and improves children's life chances. Centres run activities to promote young children's health and development, helping to get them ready to start school. They also act as a hub for families who need more intensive help with issues like behaviour and emotional wellbeing.
This vital work is now under threat by an increasingly challenging climate. Local authorities face large budget cuts, forcing many to cut back on funding for children's centres. This means centres have to close some of their premises, restrict the hours they are open or provide fewer services to families who need them most of all.
These cuts have led to questions about centres' purpose in local communities. Centres have aimed to provide open services so any family can drop in and use them, but when money is in short supply they are taking the understandable approach of focusing on the most disadvantaged families. The risk is that ending open access, such as drop-in play sessions, will lead to fewer parents coming into children's centres making it harder for staff and parents to work together to address problems early on. It will also lead to stigmatising those families who continue to use the more targeted services. This risks driving away the very families who stand to benefit the most from centres.
To combat this, we need a new vision for what children's centres can deliver, rather than clinging on to the old one. Centres should focus on ensuring children reach important milestones by age five by taking a leadership role and acting as a local hub for services from antenatal onwards. While we need national leadership to establish this, the exact details of delivery should be left to local areas, according to local need.
The most important thing is to preserve universal access for parents from pregnancy into the crucial first few years of their child's life. This is when many issues affecting children first arise, and when help can have the greatest lasting impact. Getting parents through the doors for any reason means they are more likely to seek help when it is needed.
There is scope for combining children's centres with other services, for example health visitors using them as a permanent base or linking them with providers of the free early education entitlement for two, three and four-years-olds. This means more opportunities to identify and act on problems parents are facing.
To support this vision, the Government should introduce a new outcomes framework to direct the services and programmes offered by children's centres. This would help clarify their purpose, and make it easier for Ofsted to inspect what children's centres are achieving. It will make sure precious resources are focused on making a difference to children in the crucial early years, getting them ready to start at school and improving their life chances. Crucially, it will with give all centres something to work towards, while preserving their independence to choose how they do it.