At the end of April, we co-hosted an exciting seminar with Frontier Economics which brought together leading academics, opinion formers, children’s charities and commissioners to take stock of the research evidence and discuss the future of children’s centres.
The event highlighted the lack of clarity in purpose and direction of children’s centres – or ‘woolly thinking’ as one speaker put it. Should services be universal or targeted at the most needy? Should they be aimed at children or parents? Should they focus on babies and toddlers or support young people of all ages? Are schools the best venue for early years services?
The diversity of perspectives and opinions reflected the breadth of the services that children’s centres deliver and the extent of what they are trying to achieve – better parenting, improved school readiness, increased employment, healthy children. The task facing children’s centre managers is immensely challenging.
The pace of change for children’s centres and public debate about their purpose and future has been prominent over recent months. Ofsted’s recent report on early years highlighted the extent of volatility for children’s centres, the Education Select Committee report concluded that the core purpose is unclear and children’s charity sector is actively campaigning and setting out proposals for the future.
The seminar provided a timely opportunity to reflect on these issues from the perspective of the research evidence. Prof Kathy Sylva, Dr Gillian Paull and I presented emerging findings from the Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England – a six year project funded by the Department for Education which is finding out how children’s centres can be effective in improving outcomes for children and parents. Two key findings were the move towards clustering of children’s centres and greater targeting of services at the most disadvantaged families which clearly pose challenges, but the research has also shown the commitment of children’s centre managers to reach and support vulnerable families. Next year, we’ll be finding out the extent to which this has been effective.
The seminar left us all with a huge amount to think about, but for me I was particularly struck by the following insights:
- Institutional structures and names are less important than how professionals work with families and what they achieve.
- Effective multi-agency working is at the heart of family support.
- Children’s Centres have been a huge achievement – few policies designed for vulnerable families have been so hugely popular with everyone else!
Follow the conversation on #childrenscentres or see presentations from the event.