Foundation Years - Sure Start Children's Centres

Written evidence submitted by 4Children


1. 4Children is the national charity all about children and families. We have spearheaded a joined-up, integrated approach to children's services and work strategically with a wide range of partners around the country to support children, young people and families in their communities.

2. We welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to this enquiry, and our submission draws upon our experience with Sure Start from its inception, both as a provider and as a national policy driver.


3. 4Children has been involved with Sure Start Children’s Centres throughout the programme’s existence as:

· Advocates of Children’s Centres in the 2001 Childcare Commission which called for 10,000 Children Centres;

· Architects of the Children Centre model and programme through the secondment of 4Children’s Chief Executive to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in 2001;

· Supporters and developers of Children’s Centres as partners in the Together for Children Consortium which was contracted by the DCSF to support local authorities to establish and develop Children’s Centres;

· A supportive organisation monitoring developments in 85 Sure Start centres and arguing to protect their long-term growth; and

· One of the largest voluntary sector providers of Sure Start Children’s Centres – running 61 Centres.

4. In March 2012, we conducted a Census of Sure Start Centres in England [1] allowing comparison to research undertaken by 4Children in March 2011 to provide analysis of how the landscape has changed in the last year. We made the following key recommendations based on the findings of the census:

a. Sure Start centres must become central to early intervention and prevention nationally and locally;

b. Sure Start must remain a national priority for central Government if it is to achieve its ambitions to improve educational outcomes, increase social mobility, reduce poverty, help troubled families turnaround and improve child health outcomes, with monitoring and funding arrangements that reflect this;

c. Centres should be developed to deliver a full spectrum of support from accessible universal services to targeted and specialist help to remain accessible and non stigmatized whilst offering the robust targeted support for those in highest need;

d. The payment by results trial results must be robustly tested against its ability to improve measurable outcomes for children and families; and

e. Central and local government should continue to develop and trial new approaches to children’s centres delivery – including relationship support, support for separated families and 0 – 19 children and family services.

How the overall level and quality of provision is being affected by moves to local funding

5. In an era of localism centres will need to continue to deliver real results for their communities if they are to retain confidence and funding. This comes at a time when there is a renewed focus on outcomes and greater reliance being placed on individual centres to bring together a portfolio of services in response to local need.

6. Our census found that local authorities and centres are focussing on reshaping their service offer and are tailoring their services to meet the most vulnerable families more than ever. Furthermore, it showed that many centres have demonstrated resilience and innovation to maintain and in some cases provide greater service levels than at the same time in 2011. However, there are ongoing concerns in some parts of the network, with a worrying 19% of centres saying that they are planning to make cuts in service provision over the coming year, and 26% planning to cut both staff numbers and service provision.

7. Although the number of centres reducing services, and closing their doors, is lower than feared when budgets settlements were first announced, there remains ongoing uncertainty as to whether centres’ impressive fortitude in the face of budgets cuts to date is sustainable. Our census shows that centres are being asked to deliver more for less, and are, in many cases, succeeding. However, there will be limits as to what can be done without significant ongoing investment.

8. In 4Children’s role as secretariat to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sure Start we supported an enquiry which collected evidence from local authorities around service delivery in areas which had seen substantial reductions in early years and children’s service budgets. The results of the enquiry revealed a varied picture of service provision around the country.

9. In Lewisham a 20% cut in the 2011/12 Early Intervention Grant to the authority resulted in children’s centres being closed, a reduction in childcare and the increased cost of services to parents. Parents in Lewisham report a low level of service with few activities on offer throughout the week in comparison to centres in neighbouring boroughs. In Manchester, the decision to cut £22 million from a £29 million budget led to parents protesting and lobbying to ensure centres remained open. At the same time however, the local authority is well regarded for its strategic approach to a move to early intervention - but it is not clear how, or even if, these two aspects marry up. In both these cases, large cuts to funding lead directly to a reduction in service provision, and widespread concern amongst families.

10. Equally, there are examples that demonstrate local authorities’ ability to successfully manage budget reductions. In Cornwall the council has moved from 40 centres to 18 centre hubs – with no plans to close individual buildings. They have cut funding by 14%, but they are still spending £9.6m a year and as a result of consulting locally and cutting back managerial oversight, they have maintained an acceptable level of service provision for families.

11. The local picture of budget decisions remain highly mixed with some local authorities taking greater steps to protect budgets. However, even the most innovative of centres will struggle to protect frontline services if budgets continue to be reduced. Recent proposals regarding the future of the Early Intervention Grant – the primary source for funding Sure Start centres – including the merging of the Sure Start allocation with council’s general funding stream, the reduction to the overall fund, and the loss of the ‘early intervention’ tag, heighten concerns that Sure Start centres will be targeted for further cuts this year.

The new Core Purpose of Sure Start children’s centres, how this has evolved and is different from the original design and purpose of Sure Start

12. Since the first Sure Start Local Programmes were established over a decade ago their delivery has gone through some significant changes – including three separate evolutions of delivery, all with slightly altered focus.

13. There have been significant moves to increase targeted work with disadvantaged families. This shift has been accentuated and driven by Ofsted inspections’ increased focus on reaching and providing services to vulnerable families. Though largely positive, this move has resulted in some of the services which became closely associated with Phase One and Two centres decreasing in prevalence including a wide range of universal open access services, most notably childcare. Some parents have raised concerns about a noticeable decrease in provision for families, though this is difficult to quantify. Positively, there has been a significant increase in outreach work and parenting support classes, whilst joint working with health professionals is becoming the norm.

14. In 2011, the government removed the requirement for children’s centres in the most disadvantaged areas to provide access to childcare if there wasn’t identifiable need [2] . Our census indicates that almost 2,000 centres across the county currently offer no childcare, whilst 28% of phase one centres no longer offer full-time childcare [3] . There also appears to be a preference for centres to realign their offer to reduce the number of full-time places though this does not necessarily mean that childcare is not available in the locality of the centre, with many centres providing information on how to access external childcare.

15. However, we found that of those centres still providing childcare over half said that they were oversubscribed – showing a demand from parents that is yet to be met [4] . The government’s announcement last year that 40% of the most disadvantaged 2 year olds would be provided 15 hours of free childcare every presents an opportunity in the context of the current changes to centre provision. We believe local authorities should seize the opportunity, and the funding available for 2 year old places, to reverse the decline in childcare provided from children’s centres as part of their efforts to increase capacity in the years ahead.

The effectiveness and impact of Sure Start children’s centres to date, including the role of Ofsted inspections

16. There has been much discussion about the tangible results produced by Sure Start centres and measuring outcomes has often proved difficult in the short term, largely due to the long-term and preventative impacts the centres offer. However, the most recent evaluations have conclusively demonstrated improvement to parenting styles and child development for those who access Sure Start, with an increased likelihood of parents engaging with other vital services through centres [5] . Centres also play a key role in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers with results from the Foundation Stage Profile showing this gap closing by 3% in the last three years [6] , and a 5% increase in children achieving a good level of development over the last year [7] .

17. 4Children’s centres use a number of tools and techniques to record the impact of interventions. These include SOUL, E-start outcomes data and 4Children’s own method of evaluation. A detailed examination of four of our centres, outlined in an impact report of our services [8] , found that support with parenting has had positive impact across all centres with families accessing the centres feel empowered and more confident as parents, and that more of their children are achieving a good level of development on a year on year basis, as evidenced by the Early Years Foundations Stage Profile.

18. We have identified four outstanding Children’s Centres which demonstrate best practice delivery and reach over 3,500 children under the age of 5, and 2,500 families, in areas of significant disadvantage. The outreach work in these centres is excellent – our Carousel centre reaches 99% of families in its catchment area, including 83% of black or ethnic minority families, and 83% of teenage parents, while our Roundabout Centre reaches almost all teenage parents within the reach area, 80% of black and ethnic minority families, and 75% of children with disabilities.

19. Parent satisfaction is also very high with 100% of families in our Bellefield centre reporting being satisfied or very satisfied with the guidance and support and the impact of services at the centre, and all four centres have achieved significant increases in the number of children reaching a good level of development over the last three years. We welcome the recognition that ‘outstanding’ Ofsted inspections have provided our centres, and know that inspections are a key driver in increasing quality across the country.

20. The ongoing localisation of provision will pose new challenges to Ofsted, and we look forward to the upcoming consultation regarding the provision of inspections on a locality model which we shall respond to directly.

The range of services and activities provided at Sure Start children’s centres, and their desired outcomes, and whether/how these differ from family centres, early Sure Start local programmes and early years settings

21. 4Children believes that the range of services, from universal to targeted, that Sure Start centres provide, and the positive recognition the brand has amongst parents’, provides a powerful combination of interventions which can extend beyond the foundation years and into youth service provision.

22. In particular, we are pleased to welcome the move towards the ‘Integrated Review’ in 2015, this co-location and co-delivery of the EYFS 2 year old check, and the health check at around the same age is an excellent example of how joint working can make things easier for parents and cheaper for local services – and children’s centres are the ideal location to hold these reviews. This approach should be replicated elsewhere, wherever possible.

23. 4Children’s own centres deliver a range of services for parents that are focused on tackling some of the most difficult and sensitive challenges parents can face, including alcohol misuse and domestic violence. These issues can be some of the most disrupting to the safe and positive home environment children require, and it is vital that we engage with these problems early and decisively. The support offered by our centres allows parents to engage with services in an environment they are comfortable in, and encourage parents to engage more regularly – and at an earlier stage – than they would if they were located elsewhere. This aspect of Sure Start’s development should be noted and welcomed.

24. We believe there is enormous potential to extend the Children’s Centre model beyond the early years. Early years support is crucial but the foundation stage should not be viewed in isolation – we know that continued intervention and support is needed as children grow up to truly protect them from disadvantage. Our 0-19 approach, offered through our Carousel Centre and elsewhere, allows children, young people and the wider family to access consistent support over years, and builds a strong sense of community around the centre. This has shown to continue to offer families the trusted support they wish for beyond the earliest years of their child’s life.

How to define and measure good practice in family and parenting support and outreach, including the effectiveness of the Government’s payment by results trials, and what measures of child development and school readiness might be used

25. The introduction of Payment by Results (PbR) for children’s centres is complex – intending to both incentivise and drive improvements, and change behaviours in service delivery to secure better outcomes. The approach faces a number of challenges to its success, not least how to effectively measure outcomes from one single aspect of the provision of children’s services, and we await the outcome of this genuine trial with interest.

26. One of the most significant challenges ahead will be the accurate development of the outcomes framework for local authorities to demonstrate the long-term success of services. University College London’s recent publication "An Equal Start: Improving outcomes in Children’s Centres" [9] produced in partnership with 4Children, provides a practical and aligned framework designed to give Children’s Centres a simple approach to identifying their strengths and areas for improvement, and measuring the impact of their services to children’s lives. Amongst 21 outcomes are those which measure whether children are engaging in age-appropriate play, the proportion of children born with low birthweight and the number of parents increasing their knowledge, and application, of good parenting. The framework started from the principle that we need to be measuring what is important – not be guided by what we can measure – and within this is a clear focus, based in evidence, of the importance of child development. The next stage of our work will be to set out how to achieve this, working closely with centres and linking in with the existing measurement regimes that exist, wherever possible.

How to increase the use of evidence-based early intervention in children’s centres

27. Sure Start Children’s Centres are ideally placed to be able to engage with families at the earliest opportunity, allowing practitioners to identify support needs as soon as they first arise.

28. Payment by Results (PbR) can act to increase the use of evidence based programmes. With a clearer focus on delivering improved outcomes, rather than meeting output targets, evidence based models will offer centres the best chance of achieving this aim. In addition as many centres make informed choices about the services they deliver given the funding climate, there is a greater likelihood that a premium will be placed on those services that are shown to deliver and support centres to meet their core purpose.

29. Whilst there are a variety of steps that need to be taken in service planning and delivery to increase evidence-based early intervention it will not be possible to delivery this without adequate funding. In 2010 the Government brought together a number of different funding streams to support early intervention services including Sure Start Children’s Centres into the Early Intervention Grant. However, as stated earlier, a recent consultation from the Department for Communities and Local Government has shown that the Government proposes to abolish the Early Intervention Grant and place funding into local authorities general revenue scheme.

30. We are profoundly concerned by a further reduction in funding at this time and we believe that this approach calls into question whether there are adequate resources to embed early intervention and adequately fund Sure Start centres. We are concerned that without a funding stream committed to early intervention then local authorities will not prioritise or maintain funding for vital children’s services, and that the money which has previously allowed Sure Start centres to deliver for their communities will be spread across the local authority.

31. 4Children has developed an innovative model of community partnerships to grow an integrated approach to local delivery from pre birth to 19.

How to strengthen integrated working between health, social care and education as part of a multi-agency early help offer, including how to improve information-sharing and the proposal for children’s centres to have access to a "named social worker"

32. For Sure Start centres to continue to work successfully as community hubs, excellent working partnerships with local services are crucial. 4Children works closely with health professionals including health visitors and midwives as a matter of routine, however nationally there are challenges and barriers to co-working which remain in some areas.

33. We believe that the uptake of statutory duties by Health and Wellbeing boards from April 2013 offer a chance for greater integration of health services into children’s centres, and an opportunity to overcome some challenges which still remain. With a local authority Director for Children’s Services, health representatives and the opportunity to expand membership to include those working directly in children centres, we expect the boards to be a significant driver for greater integration.

How to increase the involvement of families (especially fathers, disadvantaged families, minority ethnic groups and families of children with SEN and disabled children) in the running of children’s centres and in their regular activities

34. Each of 4Children’s centres has a focus or a management advisory group. We always encourage parents to be involved in this forum which in many of our centres has proven to be instrumental in identifying needs in the area. For example at Seesaw Children’s Centre in Essex parental input at the focus group informed and led to the development of life skills training for parents, whilst at Carousel, 4Children’s Centre in Essex, the Twins and Multiple births group is run by parents themselves while the toddler group, initially organised and publicised by the centre’s family support work, now has parents taking a lead role.

35. 4Children take a proactive approach to engaging with parents and with the wider community, including the most vulnerable families. Our use of parents and community leaders as volunteers, board members, and key contributors to our local services allows us to drive services according to parental input, and ensure that we remain reflexive to community need. By engaging with the community in this way, we can also reach out to vulnerable families, and work within local settings to minimise any perceptions of stigma and provide support where it is most needed. This work extends from ‘Dads days’ and their simplest, to dedicated outreach work with local Traveler communities at their most complex, – and all allow us to maintain an ongoing relationship with diverse and varied communities.

December 2012

[1] 4Children, 2012, Children Centre Census 2012 , 4Children:London

[2] Department for Education, 2012. Government moves to free up children’s centres. Available at: [Accessed 15 October 2012]

[3] 4Children, 2012. Children Centre Census 2012 , 4Children:London, p. 24

[4] 4Children, 2012. Children Centre Census 2012 , 4Children:London, p. 25.

[5] Department for Education, 2008. The Impact of Sure Start Local Programes on Three year Olds and their Families , Department for Education: London, 2008.

[6] EYFSP 2011

[7] EPFSP 2012

[8] 4Children, 2012 . 4Children’s Children’s Centres Interim Impact Report , 4Children:London

[9] Anne Pordes Bowers, A. P, Strelitz , J., Allen, J. and Donkin , A., 2012. An Equal Start: Improving Outcomes in Children’s Centres. Institute of Health Equity: London

Prepared 21st December 2012