A government-commissioned study has found children’s centres with increased budgets and expanded services lead to better outcomes for families and mothers.
The report, published just before Christmas, comes at a time of unstable funding for such services, with increasing reports of planned children’s centre closures.
As part of the wide-ranging six-year study, researchers analysed the impact of children’s centres on 2,600 families registered across 117 sites in England.
“The impact analyses identified better family and mother outcomes for those families registered at a centre that [had] increased budget and expanded services”
ECCE study report
The centres included in this analysis – which covered provision between 2011 and 2013 – were those set up to target the most disadvantaged areas.
Researchers found families using centres that did not have cuts to services scored more favourably across a range of assessments. These included those measuring dysfunctional interaction between parents and children, the level of disorganisation in the home, and the quality of the learning environment at home.
Meanwhile, mothers who attended centres with both expanded services and no budget reductions showed improved mental health, compared with those who were registered with centres that had been cut.
The Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England (ECCE) study, carried out by researchers at the University of Oxford on behalf of the Department for Education, noted midwife and health visitors provided the most commonly used services at centres.
It also found children’s centres included in the study typically did not have highly qualified specialist staff to support complex mental health or social problems.
“Moreover, the external context of cuts to mental health provision at this time may make referral and signposting for high-need families difficult,” it said.
“Children’s centres may be better placed to provide services to support families and parents, but may struggle to support those with complex social or mental health problems,” the report cautioned.
“Adverse impacts are likely to be compounded by the wider context of cuts in benefits or services that are linked with the austerity programme”
ECCE study report
In their report – called The impact of children’s centres: studying the effects of children’s centres in promoting better outcomes for young children and their families – researchers found 12% of centres in the study had seen cuts to budget or staff, while 26% had experienced both.
It noted the government ring-fence for Sure Start children’s centres was removed in 2011 and replaced with a grant that decreased during the time the study was carried out.
Local authorities planned to spend £1bn on all Sure Start and other children’s centres in 2011-12, falling by 4.6% to £0.95bn in 2012-13, according to data from the Local Government Association.
“An important finding was related to the impact on children’s centres from budget changes over the course of this evaluation,” stated the report.
“The impact analyses identified better family and mother outcomes for those families registered at a centre that was growing (with increased budget and expanded services), rather than centres that had cut budgets and restructured,” said the report.
It added: “It is perhaps unsurprising that reductions in services/staffing and restructuring, predicted poorer outcomes. Lack of stability in a centre, and the time required to restructure provision, plus the loss of services or staff may well affect the ability of centres to deliver services.
“Such adverse impacts are likely to be compounded by the wider context of cuts in benefits or services that are linked with the austerity programme in operation while the ECCE evaluation took place,” it said.
Commenting on the report, which has only recently emerged after being published before the Christmas period, Unite’s professional officer for health visiting, Dave Munday, said its timing was ironic in a week the prime minister announced more support for parents.
He called on the government to “think again” about policies, which he suggested contributed to the closure of hundreds of Sure Start centres since 2010.
“When the prime minister speaks of parenting support, he should reflect on the decisions his government has taken which have resulted in 763 fewer Sure Start centres already, read this report and think again,” he said.