Foundation Years - Sure Start Children's Centres

Written evidence submitted by Barnardo’s


1 As the largest children’s social welfare charity, Barnardo’s has extensive experience of working to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children, young people and their families. We believe in the potential of early intervention to break the cycle of poverty and contribute to social mobility.

2 We use the experience and evidence gained from our direct work with children and their families to campaign for better policy and to champion the rights of every child. With committed support and a little belief even the most troubled families can turn their lives around for their children.

3 As the second largest non-municipal provider of children’s centres – with 130 centres as of July 2012 – Barnardo’s is concerned to ensure that Sure Start Children’s Centres continue to give the best possible support to disadvantaged and vulnerable children and families.

4 We welcome this opportunity to respond to the Select Committee’s Inquiry focussed on Children’s Centres, especially in the light of our evidence of working with disadvantaged and vulnerable children and their families in our own children’s centres. Members of the Select Committee are warmly invited to visit any of Barnardo’s 130 children’s centres, including some located in the most deprived areas in England .

Executive Summary

5 Barnardo’s strongly believes in the value of Sure Start Children’s Centres in both promoting social mobility in the future whilst also improving the lives of very young children and their families in the now.

6 Based on our experience Barnardo’s response covers the following points:

§ The value of Children’s Centres as a means to engage with parents – particularly those families hardest-to-reach.

§ The value of Children’s Centres in offering universal provision which prevents stigmatisation;

§ The importance of strengthening integrated and multi-agency working;

§ The best ways outcomes-based models might be used to commission Children’s Centres including the challenges around using payment-by-results mechanisms for this provision;

§ The best ways to involve parents in the running of Sure Start centres;

§ The use of buildings by Children’s Centres and how this might be maximised.

7 Based on our evidence we wish to make the following recommendations for the committee’s further consideration:

· Outreach services run by Children’s Centres are vitally important in ensuring families most in need can be identified and helped, and should be prioritised for protection from budget cuts.

· Government should be clear and unambiguous that universal provision remains the optimum model for Children’s Centres to most effectively reach and improve outcomes for those families most in need.

· Centres should ensure that the use of their buildings is maximised for community benefit.

The importance of Children’s Centres in reaching families

8 Children’s Centres are a particularly important lever for Government to reach and deliver services to children under five and their families. The cross-party consensus on the benefits of early intervention emphasises the importance of having a positive means of engagement with families who may need extra support in the early years. Children’s Centres provide the crucial platform for the delivery of such early intervention engaging families who need more support

9 The responsibility of having a child can be a fertile time to inspire parents to improve their own lives in order to improve the prospects for their child – evidence from Barnardo’s research with teenage mothers shows that for many families having a baby brings a renewed sense of responsibility and aspiration. [1] But many parents – particularly those with deeply ingrained problems such as addiction or debt for instance – require some initial support to help themselves towards positive outcomes, such as work.

10 Many individual services could provide this support, but Children’s Centres provide a unique focal point to coordinate early intervention to best effect by (a) encouraging better inter-agency collaboration between services, and (b) offering a single point of contact for service users which helps to foster confidence and trust. Barnardo’s local Children’s Centres convene local multi-agency early intervention groups as well as simply sharing information and good practice.

11 However, this platform of support cannot be delivered without an appropriate means to access the families targeted. Midwives and health visitors provide a universal point of contact, but most often only during the ante-natal phase and immediate period after birth. The statutory school system engages with children and families universally too, but only from age five upwards. Without Children’s Centres it is unclear how the Government would be able to reach all families of children under five, particularly in a way that works across various professions to offer appropriate support and signposting.

Barnardo’s experience of outreach and its importance

12 One of the most important functions of Children’s Centres is their ability to reach families most in need. Successful centres employ area-appropriate means to identify and target services at families. Barnardo’s runs Children’s Centres across England employing a range of outreach models tailored to the needs of the locality.

13 Some of our Sure Start centres in rural Cumbria are 20 miles away from the populations they need to reach. The centre acts as a base for workers who deliver activities and services in village halls and community centres around the county. One of the most challenging locations for outreach in Cumbria is the remote, fell village of Shap which is often cut off by snow during the winter. Nonetheless sessions take place there as regularly as possible for a small number of young children whose families would otherwise be isolated.

14 By contrast, in Newcastle outreach is conducted street by street through workers knocking on doors in a targeted way. A weekly play bus visits streets where attendance at the Sure Start centre is low. In this way workers become familiar, so building parents’ confidence to access services at the main centre.

15 For our Phase 3 Sure Start Centres in more affluent Buckinghamshire the challenge is to identify the more vulnerable families in the community. The centres work with a number of agencies who can refer families, and help by promoting their services in a targeted way – such as by flyering locally in shops and on estates in particular residential areas.

16 Barnardo’s research [2] on reaching vulnerable families demonstrated that Children’s Centres which were well embedded in the network of local services were the most confident of their reach to vulnerable groups. Referrals are an important part of ensuring that services reach the most vulnerable families in a community and these can come from a range of agencies including police and probation, children’s services and social care, housing authorities, health services, or schools. Close relationships with these agencies are critical to improving reach as is the sharing of accurate and up to date information. This underlines the importance of integrated and partnership working.

17 Recommendation: Outreach services run by Children’s Centres are vitally important in ensuring families most in need can be identified and helped, and should be prioritised for protection from budget cuts.

The core purpose of Children’s Centres and universal provision

18 Barnardo’s is clear that making provision available to all families is the best way to build social capital in communities and enable engagement with the full range of families without stigma. It is the universal element that will do most to support social mobility.

19 Evidence – such as that from the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education study [3] – shows the benefits of mixed social groups for disadvantaged under 5s and their parents. These benefits of universal provision include reduction of stigmatisation, peer learning and natural modelling of positive parenting behaviours such as breast feeding, play and use of language.

20 Barnardo’s recognises that in the present economic climate Children’s Centres will need to target their services more. However, too much targeting of services could be counter-productive. Firstly, it could lead some centres into simply responding to crisis rather than offering effective prevention of future problems. But also services which are targeted at specific families become more stigmatising, which is likely to undermine the proven track record of Children’s Centres being effective in winning the trust to work with many ‘hard-to-reach’ families.

21 Recommendation: Government should be clear and unambiguous that universal provision remains the optimum model for Children’s Centres to most effectively reach and improve outcomes for those families most in need.

Integrated Working

22 Integrated working within Children’s Centres can both improve the effectiveness and the efficiency of services. The value of agencies working together is well known: the sharing of information is valuable in fostering greater co-operation between professionals; service-users find it easier to navigate and build trust in services when they are better linked; co-location in many centres is also useful in reducing costs of providing services, important when funds are limited during the current economic downturn.

23 Where agencies are co-located, early intervention works most effectively because services can often be accessed more informally. A reassuring discussion with a health visitor can save visits to a GP or A&E by anxious new parents. Timely advice or signposting from a family support worker can prevent escalation through the social care system for a stressed family. The chance to speak to a Job Centre Plus adviser in a familiar, child-friendly setting can help parents into employment or ensure they claim the correct benefits. The model enables parents to gain trust with one centre rather than a range of different professionals across entirely different contexts.

24 Good information sharing is promoted by the integration of services. Without full sharing of data, services will not reach those most in need. For example our Children’s Centres in Northumbria have a Memorandum of Understanding with the health authority so that health visitors and midwives pass on accurate data and register families with the Sure Start Centre. This is supplemented with regular data meetings to ensure improved targeting.

25 However we are aware of poor practice in other areas where health professionals consider this task beyond their remit, making it very hard to obtain sufficient data. Families are not reached and, in the most extreme circumstances, this has led to terrible consequences such as babies being registered for services despite them having passed away shortly after birth.

26 Culture is important in fostering effective integrated working across different sectors. Although the central role of the state in the delivery of individual services is being reduced, there is a strong case for Government Departments to co-ordinate in developing and leading a culture which promotes integrated children’s services. Where workers in health, social services, early years, employment services etc. receive the same overarching aims and objectives for working with families from the very top, successful integrated working at ground level is more likely.

Outcomes-based contracting and the use of payment by results

27 Barnardo’s does not oppose the broad principles underpinning payment by results (PbR) mechanisms in public services. However, we believe the success of any PbR model hinges on the design of its key performance indicators (KPIs) that trigger payments. Designing KPIs for children’s centres can be particularly challenging for two specific reasons:

(a) Short term or long term impacts?

28 There is a tension between the responsiveness of short-term impacts as a payment trigger and the desirability of long-term impacts and associated savings as an aim for early intervention. While meaningful PbR systems respond to short-term outcomes; as reflected in the core purpose of Children’s Centres "to improve outcomes for young children and their families" evidence shows [4] that that the real improvement in outcomes, and crucially the cost savings, associated with early intervention, comes in the long-term into adulthood and later life.

29 On this basis, PbR systems related to savings from early intervention are difficult to apply to Children’s Centres, not least because of the multitude of uncontrollable external factors in the intervening period between infancy and adulthood which may affect the input of a children’s centre. Alternatively KPIs that trigger payments at an earlier stage in the child’s life – say based on Key Stage 1 test scores – could be generated, but it is unlikely that sufficient savings will have been made by the state in just a year or two to justify a premium payment to a provider.

30 PbR also runs the usual risks associated with targeted systems. Meeting targets can lead to a focus on the strictly countable with unintended consequences for other aims. For example, centres may choose to be measured on their easier to measure outputs rather than their harder to determine long-term outcomes or the more qualitative short-term impacts.

(b) Proportions of PbR

31 The second challenge of PbR relates to balancing the proportion of centre income which is delivered by PbR. Using PbR to provide a high proportion of a centre’s income is a risky strategy with the potential for closure of services. [5] This would particularly affect smaller providers, leaving fewer, larger providers and a reduction in choice. On the other hand, too low a proportion of funding via PbR risks it being irrelevant for improving service effectiveness.

32 On balance Barnardo’s believes the best model of outcomes-based contracting for children’s centres would be one which makes payment by results additional to a realistic amount of capital for delivering a service. This assures sustainability whilst encouraging innovation and sensitivity to the community’s needs.

33 Reconciling these tensions will not be easy. Commissioners of children’s centres must strike the right balance between setting short-term targets to support PbR mechanisms (such as those around ‘school readiness’ or breast feeding), whilst supporting the broader social benefits resulting from a long term approach to early intervention, which cannot effectively be captured by PbR systems.

34 Additionally, the tendency of commissioners to offer contracts of three years or shorter, makes it difficult for voluntary sector providers of Sure Start children’s centres to demonstrate either short- or long-term outcomes suited to PbR, let alone recoup tender and set-up costs. It is an improbable business model that delivers profit and reliably measureable results within one year and no private sector start up would plan to do so.

Increasing parental involvement in running Sure Start Centres

35 Barnardo’s strongly supports the involvement of parents and communities in running its Children’s Centres. Many of our centres recruit and train volunteers to support services and centres alongside staff. They are offered the opportunity to obtain relevant training (for example, food hygiene, first aid, and childcare qualifications) and receive ongoing supervision. Many of these volunteers progress in time to paid employment with the centre and a new career.


36 Barnardo’s Children’s Centres also incorporate an increasing number of parent-led groups. For example volunteers run their own weekly baby and toddler group at a children’s centre in Clacton, while a parent-led stay and play group in Buckinghamshire has allowed one of our centres to reach more parents than previously by effectively increasing capacity, and several of our centres have established Parent Voice Groups – a valuable means to feed into the running of services which also plan and run their own events and activities.


37 Barnardo’s supports moves to increase the involvement of parents and communities in running centres – we believe that the greater the community ownership of the centre, the more effective it can be in providing early intervention to help children and families. However, to be most effective such involvement needs to draw parents from all sections of the community – and appropriate support needs to be in place to ensure the opportunity to participate is open to all. It is our experience that, in a minority of cases, parent groups have sometimes given way to ‘cliques’ creating an exclusive culture. There is a risk that this could make it more difficult to engage with harder-to-reach families, a central value of our children’s centres. 

38 As yet lines of responsibility and accountability for parental involvement are somewhat undefined. So as parental involvement increases clear guidance needs to be given on key values and issues to support an inclusive ethos and ensure that children and their families are safe and can use the centre with confidence.

Use of Buildings

39 Many of Barnardo’s centres optimise the use of their buildings by sharing them with a range of other services, including mediation; relationship support; children’s dental health, etc. One of our centres in Carlisle is based in the local community centre and shares facilities with local elders’ groups, playgroups, and a private nursery. The presence of the Children’s Centre is key to the sustainability of these other community activities. In another area our purpose-built children’s centre is offered to short breaks services for disabled children at the weekends.

40 However, we feel Children’s Centre buildings can often be under-used too. Many Sure Start activities seem to end at around 3:00 pm. Centres could therefore make their premises available at minimal cost (or peppercorn rent) to, for example, childcare providers willing to offer after-school care for school-age children, or other parts of the community during the evenings and at weekends.

41 Recommendation: Centres should ensure that the use of their buildings is maximised for community benefit.

December 2012

[1] Evans, J (2010) Not the end of the Story: Supporting teenage mothers back into education , Barnardo’s

[2] Barnardo’s (2011) Reaching Families in Need learning from practice in Barnardo’s children’s centres , Barnardo’s

[3] , Melhuish , E ( s.d ) A literature review of the impact of early years provision on young children, with emphasis given to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, prepared for the National Audit Office

[4] Field (2010) The Foundation Years: Preventing poor children becoming poor adults (HM Government); Allen (2011) Early Intervention: the next steps (HM Government); Tickell (2011) The Early Years: Foundations for life health and learning .

[5] See for example the effect of the Work Programme on some small contractors

Prepared 21st December 2012