‘Thousands’ of Sure Start centres have closed in less than a decade

5 Apr 18

The government has underestimated the number of Sure Start centre closures in England by half, the Sutton Trust has claimed in research released today. 

Oxford University academics have calculated for the charity’s Stop Start’ report that as many as 1,000 centres for pre-school children have closed since 2009 – a 30% drop since 2017.

Official government statistics, the Sutton Trust said, had previously suggested a 14% drop between August 2009 and October 2017 – with numbers reducing from 3,632 to 3,123.

But the educational foundation said government statisticians did not look at locally recorded closures and its figures were collated without a clear definition of what a ‘children’s centre’ was.

Because of a number of local mergers, reorganisations and service reductions many centres were now ‘linked sites’, which provide fewer services, and so counted by some authorities as ‘Sure Start’ centres but not by others.

The team at Oxford University looked at registered children’s services themselves, a survey of local authorities and case studies to conclude closures were creating a ‘postcode lottery’ of early years provisions.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of Sutton Trust and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “It is a serious issue that the service that Sure Start centres offer are much more thinly spread than they were a decade ago.

“Additionally, since 2010 there has been a precipitous decline of 30% in the number of Sure Start centres.

“Thousands of families are missing out on the vital support they provide.”

The Sure Start children’s centre programme was introduced by the last Labour government in 1998 and was intended to bring together ‘under one roof’ services for pre-school children, including advice and sometimes childcare provision.

After surveying 124 local authorities, the researchers at Oxford University found great regional variations in closures.

By 2017, 16 authorities who had closed more than half of their centres accounted for 55% of the total number of closures. 

Financial pressures were thought to be the main reason for the decline according to 84% of councils, with 69% of authorities reporting a budget decrease in the last two years.

Professor Kathy Sylva, lead author of the report, said:  “At a time of increasing pressure on poor families with young children, there is an urgent need for evidence based services to support them.”

The Sutton Trust has called for the government to complete a review of the children’s centre programme. 

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, said:  “The Sutton Trust are right to highlight the need for a full review and consistent monitoring of provision, so that further erosion of these crucial services does not go unnoticed.”

A government spokesperson said: “Councils will receive more than £200bn for local services, including children and young people services, up to 2019-20.

“In addition to this we are investing more in childcare support than any other government – around £6bn a year by 2019/20.”

They added it was “right that we give councils the freedom to decide what services they provide for their communities as they are best placed to understand local needs”.

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