Uncertain future for families reliant on child care centres

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Lewisham has second highest level of child development  in the UK. Pic: Pixabay

For many parents, raising a child can be an isolating and difficult experience. A children’s Sure Start centre can provide life-changing help, offering everything from breastfeeding advice to language classes for local families.

But what if this help were to diminish or come to an end? What would happen to those vulnerable families dependent on a centre’s support?

That is the grim reality Lewisham residents are facing, after the council recently announced proposals to Ofsted de-register 13 Sure Start children’s centres in the borough, as part of plans to save nearly £3.8m in child social care over the next three years.

Unsurprisingly, people are furious, fearing the de-registration will sentence their beloved centres to a slow death. Cathy Dearson, a mother of two from Brockley, explained that for many, the Sure Start centres are much more than an early learning service. “Everyone was passionate about the sense of community the centre[s] created and the friendships it had fostered, which meant a huge amount to parents in difficult circumstances. It is a haven.”

In September 2014, a study by researchers from University College London’s Institute of Health Equity showed that Lewisham had the second highest level of child development by age five in the country, at 67.9 per cent. Parents are furious that this achievement will be wasted if the proposals to children’s centres go ahead. Clare Griffiths, 40, a demographer and mother of two from Catford, explained: “A good start in the early years sets children up for life, and it’s no coincidence that having had such good facilities, Lewisham has seen results.”

An online petition started by Dearson has launched in retaliation to the council’s plans, aptly labelled ‘Save Our Children’s Centres’. In just one day the e-petition gathered 600 signatures. In two, the number rose to over 800.

There are currently 17 centres in Lewisham, all part of the government-based Sure Start initiative, launched in 1998 with the aim of ‘giving children the best possible start in life’. In an area with a high rate of deprivation and low level of adult literacy, the centres have provided children with vital protection from the impact of poverty, helping those from poorer backgrounds reach the same levels of attainment as wealthier children.

Map of all Lewisham Children’s centres and those proposed for de-registration

Under Sure Start, each centre is subject to Ofsted regulation and the responsibility of the local authority. Normally focusing on under five year olds, the centres are commissioned to one of three service providers. The Children’s Society – running eight Lewisham centres, the Pre-School Learning Alliance – running two, or the centres are school-run, of which there are currently seven.

Each centre offers a wide range of classes and activities for both parent and child, in a bid to help and sustain their physical and mental wellbeing. Providers organise everything from cooking workshops to soft-play and developmental checks. A spokesperson for the Lewisham branch of Mumsnet described these services as ‘vital’. “The combination of play, education, friendship and advice has proven to be priceless, even life changing, for so many of our members.”

Among local parents there is a widespread fear that the proposals will make the centres unviable. If a centre if Ofsted de-registered, it will not be required to meet Ofsted approved standards, such as being open, and staffed, five days a week, being subject to inspection, and providing a range of specified services. According to Lewisham council, “the proposals involve the centres operating more flexibly so that they can still meet the needs of families but at a reduced cost.”

While the council are eager to point out that de-registration would not automatically signify the children’s centres closure, Dearson explains this could well be the case, with other services, such as GPs and health visitors, unable to refer vulnerable families to an unregistered centre. “The centres are targeted on how many families they help. They would miss their targets, slowly decline and eventually be quietly closed as they were ‘under-utilised’ and ‘inefficient’” she explained. According to the local mother, there is a countrywide trend for de-registered centres to eventually close.

For Dearson, closure would be a tragedy. She described how, at an earlier consultation meeting, parents had recalled their own personal experience with Lewisham’s Sure Start centres, “One mother explained that she had felt so desperate and isolated, coming to the centre had literally saved her life. A father explained how it had helped him in getting the correct care for his son who has SEN, and helped him manage better personally.”

Lewisham is not the first area to plan cuts to its early years services. Early in the year, Haringey council proposed a spending cut of £1.44m over three years from the early years budget, also proposing to remove the childcare subsidy from the borough’s children’s centres that provide daycare. Out of London, Liverpool’s mayor recently announced he had secured an extra £1.5m, to save ten of the city’s children’s centres from closure. Undoubtedly, this outcome was down to the relentless protesting of Liverpool parents, whose ‘Save Liverpool Children’s Centres’ campaign received the backing of Coleen Rooney, wife of footballer Wayne Rooney, and screenwriter Jimmy McGovern.

Lewisham council have argued that deep cuts imposed by the Government has left them with “no alternative” but to do things differently. The local authority have been forced to save £39m from this years budget, this comes on top of £93m savings already made since 2010. The Mayor of Lewisham, Steve Bullock, said the areas with the greatest levels of need, like Lewisham, have been hit the hardest. “The level of savings we need to make is so vast that inevitably they will have an impact on the level of service we are able to provide”, he explained.

Given the level of interest in the petition, alongside a strong pressure from social media, the local authority have now agreed to meet with concerned parents and locals to discuss the proposals. Despite many residents sympathising with the increased pressure put on a local council, especially with a diminishing budget, there is a worry that a shrinking number of services could escalate the needs of vulnerable families, leading to poorer outcomes for Lewisham’s children.

Emily Wilson*, a journalist and mother of two from Lewisham, said: “I appreciate that Lewisham council are under huge pressure to find a way to cut their budget, so I don’t necessarily blame their decision making. But the truth is we should be expanding Sure Start provision not demolishing it.”

“It’s not for the middle class mums that I want to see Sure Start stay, it’s for children from deprived backgrounds who may have no toys at home and no other opportunities to play safely. In our fractured society we have to have spaces where mothers can come to meet other families – it’s not some sort of nice extra, it’s absolutely vital to maintain peoples mental well being. If mums and dads are unhappy and lonely, their children will suffer.”

For now, the future of Lewisham’s centres remains uncertain. With the council willing to engage with residents surrounding the proposals, many are hopeful for a more promising outcome. “We welcome the council’s willingness to communicate and we hope that we can find a way forward that is acceptable to everyone and means these vital resources remain open for the community now and in the future”, Dearson remarks.

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