The result of cuts and children’s centre closures

Posted by Dan Breslin / Monday 17 June 2019 / Children's centres

Since 2010, children’s centres have seen a 62 per cent cut in funding. Spending by local authorities on children’s centres is now almost £1 billion lower than at the start of the decade. In the last three years, more than a 1,000 centres have not been inspected for quality of services after the government suspended Ofsted inspection.

Reductions in spending have translated into closure and service cutbacks. The Sutton Trust estimates more than a 1,000 centres have closed since 2009. The government’s own figures show 548 have closed with a further 722 no longer offering the full range of services they have in the past. 

Despite much focus on the number of centres closing there has been less attention paid to how this affects the number of children and families using centres.

Number using centres Y

Based on a Freedom of Information request our new report, Closed Doors, provides a new, national figure of estimated children’s centre use. Our analysis has found the number of children using centres has fallen by an estimated 18 per cent - from 2.2 million to 1.8 million between 2014/15 and 2017/18.

While a fall in use could reflect changing levels of need among children and parents, there is little evidence to suggest this is the case. There has been little change in the number of children in need under-five for abuse and neglect and only a two per cent fall in the numbers on child protection plans. Neglect and abuse are the types of issues that parenting programmes delivered by children’s centres are ideally placed to address before they escalate.

Deprived areas seeing the biggest fall in use

With local authorities taking different approaches in how they see children’s centres working, there are differences in how the number of children using centres has changed across England. 

But what is noticeable is the fall in use amongst the most deprived local authorities. In the last four years, these local authorities have seen a 22 per cent fall in the numbers of children using centres, from 324,327 to 253,370. These local authorities continue to have poorer early years outcomes underlining the importance of those services which are designed to help give children the best start in life. 

It is clear that funding cuts are playing a big role. Since 2010, the most deprived local authorities have seen their available funding for children’s services fall by 37 per cent compared to a 21 per cent fall amongst the least deprived.

This is notable because the more deprived areas have traditionally reported poorer child outcomes in the early years. Our analysis found, the average developmental gap across those local authorities where usage increased had fallen. Conversely, in local authorities where the number of children using centres in the last four years has increased, the gap between low income children and their peers has, on average, closed. In comparison, those local authorities that have seen a fall in use have, on average,

seen the gap increased. This follows recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which found a link between children’s centres and improved health outcomes.

Well used but overlooked by government

Our findings paint a worrying picture. But they also show how popular and effective centres remain even with the fall in numbers. They remain comparable to other early year services. In 2017/18, 1.5 million children received free early year education and an estimated 1.7 million were supported by Health Visitors. Similar numbers to those children under-five using centres.

Ofsted use

Despite similar figures on use, children’s centres have received far less focus from ministers compared to other early years services. A consultation was announced but never published and current reviews won’t focus on funding or national policy. 

This must change. We need the Government to show leadership and set a clear direction for children centres. This should include, given the current absence of Ofsted inspections, a new outcomes framework to make the most of a vital local resource

Alongside this we need sufficient resources. With a spending review scheduled for later this year, there is a chance for government to address the current funding pressures driving a fall in the number of children using centres. We need to see additional funding given to local authorities to address the estimated £3.1 billion gap they will be facing by 2025. Failure to address this will only lead to further drops in the number of children using centres in the future.