Foundation Years - Sure Start Children's Centres

Written evidence submitted by Ofsted

The Ofsted inspection of Sure Start children’s centres commenced in May 2010. By June 2012, a little over two years into the planned five year inspection cycle, 1,389 of the 3,741 centres known to be registered on the Department for Education’s ‘Sure Start On’ database had been inspected.

More centres designated in phase one have been inspected than those in phases two or three as there is a protocol in place between Ofsted and the Department for Education (DfE), through which centres are not inspected until three years after their designation. At this stage in the inspection cycle, it is too early to provide a full response about the effectiveness of all Sure Start Children’s Centres or of their impact on young children and their families.

This submission draws upon internal analyses of Ofsted inspection reports published between May 2010 and June 2012, published findings from the Annual Report 2010/11 of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector and Ofsted’s Official Statistical Releases for children’s centres, which are published quarterly. Ofsted’s evidence does not cover all the issues raised by the Committee and consequently we are not in a position to provide informed responses to all of them.

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.

1. The ‘core purpose’ for Sure Start Children’s Centres was introduced in 2011. Through this, children’s centres are required by the DfE:

‘to reduce inequalities in child development and school readiness, supported by improved parenting aspirations, self-esteem and parenting skills; and child and family health and life chances’ (DfE, 2011).

2. The requirement for children’s centres to provide childcare in the most disadvantaged areas has been removed where there is no identifiable need. Similarly the requirement for a linked qualified early years teacher has also been removed.

3. Inspection evidence and our recent discussions with local authorities indicate that the change in emphasis has reduced the engagement of qualified teachers in the ‘learning and development’ activities provided by centres. The direct provision of childcare by centres is also reducing and in addition, the support for childminders provided through centres has been cut back; in some authorities this has been significant.

4. Ofsted has two main concerns. First, inspection evidence shows that the quality of childcare directly provided by children’s centres in disadvantaged areas is better than that provided by childminders and other childcare providers. This, coupled with the removal of the requirement for centres to offer support to childminders and other childcare providers, means that children’s centres are not helping to reduce inequalities in children’s readiness for school as well as they might.

5. Secondly, our evidence shows that the presence of a qualified teacher or equivalent makes a marked, positive difference to the quality of childcare and early education. The data are stark and show a direct correlation between the level of staff qualification and quality. Inspection evidence highlights the reduction in qualified teacher involvement at the same time that key research findings, including the recent Nutbrown Review, are linking the importance of staff qualifications to improvements in the quality of early education and childcare.

6. Since 2011, funding for early intervention and preventative services, including Sure Start Children’s Centres, has been maintained through the Early Intervention Grant. However, funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres is no longer ring-fenced and recent discussions with local authorities have shown that many local authorities are re-organising their Sure Start Children’s Centres and services substantially to i) ensure they match the ‘core purpose’ and ii) respond to austerity budgets. As a direct result of the changed way in which local authorities are commissioning and delivering children’s centre services, Ofsted has announced its intention to revise the inspection framework so that it better reflects the current arrangements and is also sufficiently flexible to meet requirements. A public consultation on the proposed arrangements will begin in the near future.

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

Background to the inspection framework

7. Ofsted has a legal duty to inspect each children’s centre at prescribed intervals or at any other time the Chief Inspector or Secretary of State decide is appropriate. Regulations [1] set the routine inspection interval at five years.

8. The Childcare Act 2006 requires Ofsted to report on how well each children’s centre:

n facilitates access to early childhood services by parents, prospective parents and young children;

n maximises the benefit of those services to parents, prospective parents and young children;

n improves the well-being of young children.

9. Regulations also require Ofsted to comment on the quality of leadership and management including whether:

n the financial resources made available to the centre are managed effectively;

n young children, parents and prospective parents in the area served by the children’s centre and who would otherwise be unlikely to take advantage of the early childhood services offered through the centre, are identified and encouraged to take advantage of those services;

n the needs of young children, parents and prospective parents who attend or are likely to attend the children’s centre are identified, and early childhood services are delivered to meet those needs;

n appropriate policies, procedures and practices for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of young children who attend, or are likely to attend, the children’s centre are adopted and implemented.

10. Under the first inspection framework for children’s centres which was implemented in May 2010, criteria for judging centres’ effectiveness were based on the planning and performance guidance produced by the DfE, and the measures within that guidance.

11. The change of Government at that time led to changes in the funding arrangements for children’s centres. These funding changes, coupled with the way in which many local authorities were reconfiguring their children’s centres led to a review by Ofsted of the children’s centre inspection framework. This review took place in July 2011. It led to a simplification of the framework and a reduction in the number of judgements made by inspectors.

12. Since July 2011, local authorities have further developed the way in which they commission and deliver services through children’s centres. The DfE is in the process of amending the regulations so that Ofsted can again amend the children’s centre inspection framework in order to reflect these changes.

Inspection evidence

13. Ofsted’s inspection evidence is drawn from the 1,389 centres which were inspected between May 2010 and 30 June 2012. Of these centres, 69% were judged good or outstanding and 98% were judged at least satisfactory. Thirty two centres have been judged inadequate. Of these, 11 have received a second inspection, where the overall effectiveness was judged to be satisfactory.

14. The evaluation after the first year of inspections, and subsequent feedback from local authorities and children’s centres, indicates that inspections have an impact on centres’ subsequent improvement plans and priorities for action.

15. Of the centres that have been inspected, the majority were designated in phase one and are the longest established centres, serving the most deprived areas. They are generally effective, albeit with variations in performance between different services and activities.

16. The strongest aspects of centres’ provision are the quality of care, guidance and support offered to families, and the effectiveness of their safeguarding policies, procedures and work with key agencies. Outcomes related to health are often highlighted as strengths in inspection reports.

17. The best centres successfully make contact with a high proportion of children and families in the area they serve. They engage them in meaningful activity and can demonstrate high participation, attendance and retention rates for all users and for individual target groups. High quality information is used to measure and record outcomes, and staff are able to demonstrate how, and why, they are making a difference.

18. Inspectors are less positive about centres’ ability to evaluate the impact of their work and to set targets for improvement. The weakest aspects of children’s centres’ work relate to children’s preparedness for school and the degree of support staff are able to give in helping parents towards economic stability and independence.

19. Parents and others who use centres’ services often comment on strong relationships with centres’ staff, and their flexibility and responsiveness. However, quantitative data do not paint a strong picture of regular attendance by target families or of improved outcomes for those target groups. Centres often have difficulty in obtaining information from key partners such as health authorities and this has an impact on their ability to monitor their work effectively and to track the difference they are making to their target families. Evidence from more recent inspections suggests that the availability and use of data by children’s centre staff is improving, though this remains a weakness even in centres otherwise judged to be good.

20. A common factor in weaker centres is that they are not good at obtaining and using data, evaluating their services , and monitoring the take-up of particular groups and families. This diminishes their ability to target their services at those who are most in need within the community . Conversely, effective centres are successful in identifying and engaging their identified target groups; they use outreach activities to draw in families from these groups. M any children’s centres report that they are less successful in reaching families suffering from ‘hidden needs’ like domestic violence, lone parents and teenage parents.

21. Centres invariably provide case studies and anecdotal evidence that demonstrate ways in which individuals’ lives have been transformed. Direct quotations from parents found in many reports provide compelling evidence of the positive impact of the centre on the lives of individual children and families.

The range of services and activities provided by 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.

22. The range of services and activities Ofsted encounters in children’s centres varies considerably depending on size, phase, and the extent to which provision has been tailored to meet local needs and local targets.

23. In general, the range and type of services and the activities that attract the highest levels of engagement are broadly consistent with those identified in the key findings of DFE RR230 (July 2012) Evaluation of children’s centres in England (ECCE) Strand 1: first survey of children’s centre leaders in the most deprived areas and other recent research publications.

24. Ofsted is unable to comment on how the services and activities provided by Sure Start children’s centres may differ from early Sure Start local programmes as these were not subject to inspection.

How Sure Start children’s centres compare with similar initiatives in other countries.

25. Ofsted has no direct evidence to contribute to this.

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.

26. Ofsted is unable to comment in detail on initiatives in these areas. However, as noted in paragraph 15, inspection evidence indicates that care, guidance and support for parents is a strong aspect of centres’ provision. Parents provide inspectors with compelling first-hand evidence of the impact of the parenting support they receive, especially in relation to behaviour management and children’s eating habits. Anecdotal evidence suggests that attendance at ante- and post-natal appointments is highest where these services are located within a children’s centre.

27. The measurement of outcomes and performance measures for children’s centres remains challenging as centres often signpost families to the services they need rather than providing them directly. This means that the impact and extent of the centre’s role can be difficult to quantify. For example, it is difficult to track the impact of a children’s centre on the Early Years Profile results for children, unless the centre has directly provided early education or childcare. Nevertheless, these nationally validated measures can provide compelling evidence of the impact of centres, where centres have tracked children’s achievements through to school.

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

28. Ofsted has no direct evidence to contribute to this

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’.

29. Inspection reports indicate that many children’s centres are becoming increasingly proactive in promoting the use of the Common Assessment Framework as a tool for referral. Similarly, many children’s centres have a named health visitor and a strong focus on early intervention and ‘team around the child’ strategies.

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.

30. Ofsted’s evidence suggests that if there was an emphasis through the statutory guidance on the importance of family involvement in the running of centres, this would provide an important lever for change.

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

31. Inspection evidence indicates that efficiency savings in public funding are beginning to impact on the level and quality of children’s centre provision.

32. There are also early indications that there is a shift in the focus from universal to targeted activities, and a reduction in the number of centres that do not offer childcare or only part-time activities such as ‘stay and play’. Those that offer childcare often report being over-subscribed, while there are indications that staffing levels are reducing and staff roles are changing. Centre managers report that the staff most likely to face redundancy are childcare workers and qualified teachers.

33. Many local authorities are redesigning their centres so that they operate in ‘clusters’. The benefits are reported to be a reduction in administration and back office costs and increased opportunities to share specialisms. Changes in leadership and commissioning arrangements are also emerging, and an increasing number of centres are being brought together to operate under shared leadership, management and governance arrangements. Our most recent information (correct as at 10 September 2012) indicates that in the past few months, 279 centres have been merged, 152 local authorities have moved to different organisational structures and some local authorities are operating different structures within their area based on their identification of local need in a geographical locality.

34. As stated, Ofsted is revising its framework so that it is flexible enough to take account of the wide range of organisational structures that are emerging across and within local authorities.

December 2012

[1] The Children’s Centres (Inspections) Regulations 2010 , OPSI, 2010; .

Prepared 11th June 2013