Shropshire Council proposes closing its services in 20 out of 26 children's centres and using the remaining 6 as family hubs. They state that this is due to both financial pressures and also to streamline services to be more effective.
Since 1998 when the first children's centres started up they reached a peak numbering over 3600 in 2009 but have gradually been eroded as ring fenced funding disappeared. Over 1000 have since closed according to the Sutton Trust and others are delivering less services than they were. Many councils across the country have used the same arguments for their actions. This is despite the fact that it would be virtually impossible to find a piece of research that doesn't emphasis the huge importance of action in the first 5 years of a child's life as having the most impact on improving life chances, health, educational attainment and family cohesion.
Barnados in its 2014 report 'what are childrens centres for?' stated that childen's centres should be placed on a statutary footing akin to similar institutions such as schools, so vital were they seen. Oxford University in 2015 produced a study of 2,600 families attending services at childrens centres over a 6 year period and concluded that Children's Centres have a significant positive effect particularly on family functioning measures and most when centres offer a greater number of services and are funded well, rather than at risk of cuts. Indeed shropshire Council in its report to cabinet 2/5/18 'Phase 2 Early Help Family Hubs' stated 'effective and co-ordinated early help minimises escalation to higher cost intervention services thus reducing unnecessary and intrusive services wherever possible and reducing financial impact on the public sector.'
Shropshire Council states that the 20 unneeded centre buildings won't close but they anticipate their continued use by other groups working with children and families. Why can these groups if they do exist, not then use the centres alongside Shropshire's present services to help pay for the buildings . Is it possible that the buildings could be opened up for more community use also to this end. If other organisations are available in the community or charity sector to take on the running of some of the childrens services could they use the buildings free to make their service viable, still making a saving for Shropshire as they would not then have the cost of running the services themselves.
It states that staff will have the opportunity for new training so that they can work with the new remit of families with children up to 25. Some may relish this idea but many will feel that their skills and knowledge gained with under 5's are being dilluted into a less specialised skill set.
Some families who would benefit from the services may not want to attend sessions aimed at 'those in need' feeling stigmatised. The charity Action for Children in its 2015 report 'The evolution of Children's Centres' express this fear.'... the reduction in universal services will make it more difficult for all families to engage with the activities on offer and potentially make centres more stigmatised this will reduce opportunities for identifying problems early and prevent some children and parents who need the support from accessing it.' Some parents will feel more willing to attend the universal services available at the moment where they blend in as part of their community and find support and companionship from other families living within their neighbourhood. With fewer centres farther apart it will be harder for families to attend sessions, particularly if they have financial difficulties. It will be particularly difficult in our rural county. Shropshire states there will be more outreach into peoples homes and local neutral centres but this will not help families feel connected to their communities. The importance of universal services, not just targetted at those seen to be most in need is that child abuse, domestic violence,post natal depression, drug or alcohol problems,isolation,metal health issues are present in families in all income brackets. I fear that with so many fewer centres more of these problems will be missed.
In the present consultation document closing on July 12th 2018,one question asks if the respondent supports the proposed 6 community hubs but no questions ask if they oppose the closure of 20 children's centres. It will be easy to state their was broad support for the changes if respondents support the hubs but haven't been given an opportunity for a direct question to oppose or support the closures.I hope that Shropshire will use and publish effective statistics to compare the usage and reach to families in need before and after closures, and reconsider if they fail to successfully outreach to families in need from these few proposed centres.