The rate of children’s centre closures may have reached a “tipping point” with evidence of a rapid increase in cuts to provision following years of decline, a report has found.
Research by a team at the University of Oxford, commissioned by The Sutton Trust, found twice as many Sure Start centres - launched in 1998 under a programme established by the then Labour government - have closed than government figures show.
Official data records a 14% drop in centres between August 2009 and October 2017, from 3,632 to 3,123.
However, the Sure Stop report, published today, says the figure is likely to be much higher as there is no clear definition of a children’s centre.
The research says many centres now offer fewer services as “linked sites” which are not counted by some councils and the number of registered children’s centres has dropped by more than 30% since 2009.
It added a survey, which received responses from 124 out of 152 top-tier councils, showed those that had resisted closure and still listed very large numbers of children’s centres in autumn 2017 were now in the process of, or consulting on, reduced provision.
It cites a number of examples from metropolitan areas and counties.
These include Birmingham City Council which announced in October last year that 21 of its 61 children’s centres would close and Somerset CC’s plan to reduce 24 Sure Start centres to eight “family centres”.
When asked for the reasons behind the closures, 84% of councils cited financial pressures and 80% reported a “change in focus”, with a move to targeting families with higher needs.
The report said: “There is now growing evidence of a further wave of large scale closures in the pipeline as a ‘tipping point’ is reached.”
The research found a high proportion of closures took place in a small number of areas, with the closure of 50% or more of their centres by 16% of councils accounting for 55% of the total closures nationally between 2009 and 2017.
During this period six councils - West Berkshire Council, Camden LBC, Stockport MBC, Bromley LBC, Oxfordshire CC and Staffordshire CC - closed more than 70% of their centres.
However, the proportion of centres in the 30% of the most disadvantaged areas remained constant up to 2017 at just over 50%.
The report’s lead author Kathy Sylva said the variation in the level of closures and services available was “alarming”, particularly as the government’s evaluation of the Sure Start programme highlight the positive impact of children’s centres on families.
“At a time of increasing pressure on poor families with young children, there is an urgent need for evidence based services to support them,” she said.