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Minority of councils pledge to protect Sure Start

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Less then 40% of councils have pledged not to close any of their Sure-Start children’s centres amid the current round of budget setting, new research by two leading charities has revealed.

The findings from 4Children and Daycare Trust follow on the heels of figures last month showing that some 250 of the England’s 3,000-plus Sure Start centres were expected to shut over the next 12 months.

According to the charities, just 39% of English councils surveyed – some 59 in number - were able to commit to keeping all of their centres open for the coming financial year.

A further 39 councils said they could not pledge to keep all of them open but had “no immediate plans” to close any.

Meanwhile, some 62 English authorities confirmed that they would be making closures, said decisions had yet to be finalised, or gave no answer.

According to the charities, just 21 councils did not answer the survey suggesting that at least 41 authorities are either planning to close Sure Start centres or considering such a move.

Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, said it was encouraging that a significant number of councils were committed to maintaining their existing service levels, parents in many areas were right to be concerned that services were under threat.

“Sure Start has never been more crucial as families struggle to offer the best start for their children and those facing unemployment or family problems will find it hard to escape from their troubles without the support these centres offer,” she said.

“The next few weeks are critical for the future of children’s centres: local and national decision makers must stand ready to step in to ensure such vital services are not lost forever.”

Anand Shukla, acting chief executive of Daycare Trust said the 59 councils committed to keeping Sure Start centres open showed that closures were not inevitable.

“We hope that councils will listen to their local residents, who are forming strong campaigns across the country to fight these cuts,” he said.

“It is now clear beyond doubt that families will not stand back and watch short-term cost-cutting decisions close down the services provided in their much loved Children’s centres.”

The coalition government is committed to refocusing services for under-fives on targeting areas of particular deprivation, and Sure Start centres will play a crucial role in that work.

Children’s minister Sarah Teather has questioned predictions of hundreds of closures.

In an exclusive interview in this week’s LGC, Ms Teather insists councils looking to close centres are more likely to be reorganising their services than cutting back on provision.

“There is a duty on local authorities to have a sufficient network of children’s centres,” she said.

“I think that most local authorities know that the direction of travel of the government is around early intervention and this is a huge priority for us around early years.

“Local authorities might decide to slightly reorganise their children’s centres so that they have better specialist provision for a particular hard-to-reach group.

“If the outcomes are better for the hardest-to-reach group we should be focused on that – not on whether they have moved a children’s centre or closed one somewhere else.”

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