Labour Group response to Suffolk County Council’s ‘Children’s Centre review 2020’
Our children’s centres are a vital lifeline for hundreds of families, providing a number of invaluable services for children and parents across Suffolk.
Five years ago, Suffolk County Council closed nine children’s centres, and it is with great dismay that, under these plans, more than half of our county’s remaining children’s centres face cuts of some description – eleven centres will see their hours reduced while a further eleven will be lost completely.
This represents a decimation of a service that has made an untold difference to the lives of so many children and young families, and will leave a vacuum that cannot be filled by an overstretched, underfunded, patchwork outreach service, despite unsubstantiated claims to the contrary.
We have a range of concerns relating to Suffolk County Council’s ‘Children’s Centre review 2020’ and its accompanying consultation which are as follows:
The Labour group at Suffolk County Council has identified a number of issues with the decision-making process and the consultation itself.
The consultation page directs members of the public to a cabinet paper from July 2019 for further information. This paper does not include the plans in their current form, with several changes having been made since they were first published. Therefore, anyone responding to the consultation will have responded based on inaccurate and out of date information.
Responding to the consultation is also problematic, not least because it is littered with loaded questions. Respondents may not disagree with the statements on offer in principle, but the consultation fails to recognise that there is a difference between agreeing with theoretical statements versus feedback on the proposed changes that will exist in reality. All too regularly, the lines are blurred, which means that there will be limited to no value to the responses, undermining the very purpose of the consultation.
Far from giving an objective description of the possibilities available, the consultation questions offer a one-sided, leading view of why the new proposals are the best – and only – option we have. The reality is that there are alternatives and this consultation has deliberately failed to include them.
It’s clear that this wasn’t an exercise to help improve the service or even to gain feedback on the alternative plans on offer, but to pay lip service to the consultation process whilst minimising the potential of receiving critical feedback.
Lack of detail and evidence
The lack of evidence for the proposed Family Hub model stands in stark contrast to the tried and tested model of children’s centres which have demonstrable benefits.
The consultation documents are vague on the practical implications of the new Family Hub model, raising numerous questions. How will the change from a 0-5 to a 0-19 service affect the delivery of services? Has the role that children’s centres play in local communities been taken into account? Have external organisations been consulted on the use of venues?
We know regular booking of community spaces is challenging already. Have you discussed the changes with staff who will now be expected to deliver an outreach service, spending valuable time setting up and travelling between locations? Disabled staff or those that cannot drive will be disadvantaged here. Clearly, this is a concern shared by the organisations who represent workers in this sector, such as UNISON and the BASW.
In contrast, we have experienced staff in our children’s centres who deliver a proven model with benefits that extend to children, mothers and the whole family, ranging from better health outcomes that extend into later life, to improved mental health of mothers and reducing parental distress .
In 2010, the Marmot review advocated for children’s centres and their effect of “levelling up” outcomes for the most disadvantaged, as well as children and families across society. However, ‘The Marmot Review 10 years on’ laments the brutal cuts that have seen Sure Start’s funding slashed by two thirds and more than 500 centres close between 2011 and 2017. It states that these cuts have had a significant impact on inequalities in health and other outcomes, with disadvantaged groups disproportionately affected .
The aforementioned positive outcomes are enough to recommend the continued operation of children’s centres in themselves, however it must also be said that it is estimated for every £1 spent on quality early care and education saves taxpayers £13 in future costs . One specific example is Sure Start centres reducing the number of people taken to hospital and delivering millions of pounds in savings to the NHS . To not invest sufficiently in early years could simply store up problems, and increased demand on services, for the future.
Whilst we are pleased that there will be increased nursery provision in Suffolk, we are concerned that they are not a like-for-like replacement for children’s centres. Nor should Suffolk’s families be faced with an either-or choice between nurseries and children’s centres. Free childcare provision allows parents to work longer hours, gives flexibility and improves financial circumstances, resulting in better outcomes for the whole family. Nurseries do not, however, offer the same universal early years services that children’s centres offer.
To reiterate, there shouldn’t be an either-or choice between children’s centres and nurseries, or indeed any other form of early years provision. The role each of these services plays in the development of a child should be respected, supported and protected.
Importance of a universal service
The success of children’s centres is built on the idea of universal services. We believe Suffolk’s children’s centres should remain a universal, non-stigmatising, service accessible equally to all Suffolk families. By offering universal services, the current model of children’s services both helps all young children in our communities and ensures that there is no stigma attached to the services .
Children’s centres should reconnect with their original purpose – they have shifted too far toward referred children and away from open access limits the positive effect of reducing inequality. According to the Sutton Trust ‘a good mix of children is important for social mobility and children’s social development’ . The changes being proposed by Suffolk County Council to children’s centres could risk further limiting social mobility in Suffolk, which we know already ranks as one of the worst places in the country for social mobility, and is totally unacceptable.
It must be recognised that there is a ‘gradient of need’ in our society where the disadvantaged have the greatest need but, as this is a gradient, need exists at all levels. This means that families and children at all levels of society can gain value from children’s centres and this value serves to reduce inequality across the board.
Universalism is key here. It allows staff in children’s centres to observe the normally private activity of parenting and identify those that needed extra support without the stigma associated with directly targeted interventions.
Conversely, labelling people as ‘high need’ creates stigma that discourages parents from using services and this means “targeting only those at highest risk misses much of the problem” .
We understand that it is the Conservative government’s policy, following the introduction of austerity policies after 2010, to favour a more targeted approach. In addition to the points raised above, we are also greatly concerned that this may be motivated by an aim to reduce engagement, and therefore spend, on support services, as has been argued by some .
Failure to consult on alternatives
Beyond the lack of evidence for the proposed overall model changes there is also a detail deficiency in the ‘site by site analysis’, which is supposed to study, in-depth, the possibilities for each children’s centre but instead offers little more than a few key figures and a side of A4 per centre. Name aside, there is almost no ‘analysis’ included.
In the absence of quantitative analysis or independent expert opinion of where centres would be best placed, decisions have been made on little more than personal opinion.
There is no effort to find alternatives sites for the centres that are earmarked for closure. For example, the proposed Jetty Lane Community Youth and Arts Centre could be a potential site for a children’s centre in Woodbridge.
Nor is there any recognition that the model that has been highly successful at Highfield Children’s Centre and could be a template for other areas of Suffolk. It is, therefore, inexplicable that, not only are the council not interested in replicating that model, but they are looking to undermine its success by shutting the centre completely.
Children’s centres hold great emotional importance as community hubs where early memories are made and lifelong friendships formed. These intangible benefits are equally as significant as the evidence presented above. Proof of this is the thousands of people who have signed petitions to save Suffolk’s children’s centres, with many leaving heartfelt messages explaining what their local children’s centre meant to them.
In summary, the Labour group at Suffolk County Council are opposed to the proposed changes which will see children’s centres closed and others replaced by Family Hubs, many with reduced hours.
We aren’t opposed to change when there is a thoughtful, evidence-led approach which looks to improve public services, not diminish them. However, we are opposed to these closures because none of these things are true in this instance.
In addition, having listened to the concerns of professionals, community groups and families, it is clear that there is widespread concern about the impact these cuts would cause.
For instance, we have heeded the arguments of the professional association for social work and social workers, whose opposition to the proposed changes “comes from a place of serious concern about the impact that such a huge cut in service provision will have on families and related services both now and far into the future” .
The partisan, inaccurate and out of date ‘evidence’ presented suggests that this consultation is simply paying lip service. A rebrand can’t disguise the fact that huge swathes of a predominantly rural county, which has already suffered from widespread bus service cuts, will be left unable to access a full-time children’s centre. The removal of universal 0-5 childcare provision, spreading resources ever thinner, with no evidence that a Family Hub model even works, is the height of folly, especially when there is an existing service that has been proven to work.
We have recently seen the impact the new school transport policy has had on Suffolk’s families. Like these proposals, warnings were made about the lack of evidence to justify the changes but went unheeded. The same mistake must not be made again.
We are urging the Conservatives at Suffolk County Council to avert the damage that will be caused to families by immediately ending their plans to close our county’s children’s centres.