Strategy of centre cuts will deeply impact our future
PUBLISHED: 18:01 01 February 2019 | UPDATED: 18:01 01 February 2019
Labour councillor Mike Smith-Clare is worried that a raft of cuts to children's centres in Norfolk will have deep implications for our children's futures
Last week’s decision to close 38 Children’s Centres across Norfolk delivers a shocking blow to every single mum, dad and carer who pleaded and campaigned so passionately for their continuing existence. The related strategy and accompanying denial that this approach is not due to reductions in funding represents the worst form of public service. It ignores those it pledges to help and offers unsupported recommendations within a worryingly incomplete and inconsistent framework of hopeful promises.
With the majority of responses to the recent public consultation expressing personal and professional concerns at the closures and the fact that 76% of Norfolks most vulnerable children already access Children’s Centres, then the suggestion that this decision is based on need and improvement is hard to accept. A more honest statement would be to acknowledge that this is happening because of substantial reductions in funding and an immediate cut of £5m to the service.
Targeted delivery does work particularly within an effective hubs and spokes model, where outreach, including one to one provision can engage children and their families and bring them back to a safe, secure and permanent centre for further support. Unfortunately without the established hubs then the support framework becomes fragmented. A reliance on libraries cannot be seen to replicate existing centres – as however effective their engagement activities might be they cannot provide the essential safe spaces for confidential conversations or the private areas for baby weighing or sensory play. As one mum highlighted: “I do visit my library, but I wouldn’t use it to talk about my post natal depression or family problems - its far to public and open!”
Research has shown that Children’s Centres help mothers, families and those experiencing with mental health issues the most. Throughout the campaign to save the centres these findings were supported by personal accounts, many accompanied with concerns regarding the strategy’s reliance on home visits, remote support through digital technology and the inconvenience of having to travel longer distances in order to access help. Whether living in an urban or rural setting accessible community buildings are in a short supply. The expectation that the transfer from a current centre to another site will be seamless is a nonsense. Apart from the scarcity of appropriate spaces, there’s also the accessibility, cost and staffing implications.
Over the past decade the voluntary and community sector has seen a reduction in millions of pounds worth of core funding - yet its role in picking up the pieces within the strategy is an essential one. Unfortunately there is no evidence to demonstrate that this can be effectively achieved and sustained across the county – with a mere £250,000 annual investment then it is highly unlikely. A worse case scenario leading to the annual amount being used to cover administration, GDPR regulation and central management. If it could be used to train and capacity build community volunteers then is that figure enough to cover the county, and what assurances are there to ensure that the skills developed will be appropriately used? Will it be prioritised to cover the most deprived communities?
With the possible Department of Education claw back of up to £16m being triggered if decommissioned buildings aren’t used for similar early years provision then the strategy fails to provide appropriate reassurances that this is preventable. Similarly there is no concrete indication as to what the proposed frontline provision looks like. It doesn’t mention frontline staff numbers or whether job losses are likely to happen – likewise it fails to predict an ability to cope with a future increase in need.
In a county where it is accepted that children represent our future, both socially and economically - then this current strategy fails to recognise their importance. Cuts will ultimately have a deeply negative impact on the lives and experiences of our children and their families. An approach that fails to answer concerns and resorts to methods unsupported by effective impact assessments does not represent a strategy fit for our children.
Sadly like the closure of Children’s Centres – it represents a closure to opportunities and worse still hope.