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Children’s Centres: supporting families

February 9, 2018 4:44 PM
Originally published by Liberal Democrat Group on Norfolk County Council

Proposed cuts to Children's Centre Services expose three great contradictions at the heart of Norfolk Conservatives' plan for dealing with funding pressures.

County Hall officials say they can make £1.25 million of efficiency and 'in-contract' savings under the current contract. But they are being asked to cut £2 million this year and a total of £5 million - half the budget for the service - over the next two years. All of this without a clear idea of how this will affect Norfolk's most vulnerable families.

At the same time, the NHS is investing heavily in community-based initiatives to keep people safe, healthy and happy in their own homes to relieve pressure on emergency services. The County Council itself is constantly battling to reduce the number of children in care. It knows that providing support early is the best way to help families to cope with crises and find their own way of moving on. Cutting Children's Centre Services without a clear plan for what comes next will simply mean extra costs - and greater damage to vulnerable families - further down the track.

We desperately need a joined-up strategy to help those most in need.

In 2014 the children's charity Barnardo's published a report What are children's centres for? It says that since the mid-1990s a 'quiet revolution' has taken place in the lives of England's children and their families with an enormous growth in pre-school provision.

Barnardo's - who are working with Norfolk County Council on a strategy for Looked After Children and Care Leavers - say that:

Perhaps the most fundamental achievement of this period, though, has been the establishment from scratch of an England wide network of over 3,000 Children's Centres. These services… are designed to reach every young family in every community with the core purpose to improve outcomes for young children and their families and reduce inequalities between families in greatest need and their peers in:

  • child development and school readiness
  • parenting aspirations and parenting skills
  • child and family health and life chances.'

Senior Conservative MP, Andrea Leadsom has said: "…it is clear that where Children's Centres work well they have the ability to transform the lives of families for the better and improve outcomes for the future - particularly by supporting the earliest years of a child's life where the opportunities to enhance their development are greatest."

The Barnardo's report argues that Children's Centres should be viewed as important a service offer as schools. The services offered from Children's Centres have a proven track record of making a difference and should remain at the heart of the support we offer to families.

Mundesley Childrens CentreThis week I visited the Children's Centre in my own division, at Mundesley on the North Norfolk Coast. It is the administrative hub for a network of three centres that cover an area of more than 120 square miles from Gresham to Bacton. Between April and October last year the network supported almost 1,000 families with the services they offer. But that doesn't include the work done by support staff visiting families in their own homes. I am really worried that services in rural areas will suffer most as a result of the cuts.

We need flexible services that meet the needs of families where they live. Yet the second great contradiction in the Conservative approach is an apparent fixation with bricks and mortar. Whether it is a misguided desire to 'put down roots' and build services that literally dominate the landscape or - far worse - a desire to capitalise on rising property costs by building an asset register, we need flexibility and innovation far more than we need to tie our services to buildings. Once an expensive building is set up, there will inevitably be pressure to centralise services and to design provision so it best fits the need of the building rather than the needs of families.

Visiting the centre in Mundesley brought home to me the third great contradiction in cutting services. The centres bring high quality, flexible employment to parts of Norfolk where opportunities are limited. The staff, often women, usually local and always passionately committed and caring have access to work which is demanding but rewarding. Norfolk Conservatives talk about their ambitions for Norfolk's economy but they seem to overlook the power they have as an employer to help people into work. The families we serve must always be at the centre of the choices we make as a Council. But we have huge potential to do good across Norfolk if only we have the vision to look beyond narrow targets and isolated budget lines.

Councillor Ed Maxfield

Photo of Ed Maxfield

Get to know your local Children's Centre

There are 53 Children's Centres across Norfolk. The services they offer vary from centre to centre, but can include:

They are free to join, most activities are free and, once you've registered, you can go along to any centre in Norfolk.

You can find out more online here: https://www.norfolk.gov.uk/children-and-families/childrens-centres