It is widely accepted that if you intervene with young children, before they can fall behind, you have a chance to change their life course for the better, and that it is particularly important to do so for poor children. Intervening is not easy but there is a service potentially well placed to it – Children’s Centres. However that ‘potentially’ is important; it’s not yet clear whether they are fulfilling all their potential.
Children’s Centres have changed a great deal since they were first introduced as a highly targeted service, placed in areas of high deprivation to support families; there are now over 3,000 across the country providing a whole range of services to members of the community. Expanding the numbers of centres in this way has led to money being spread more thinly, and since 2010 the amount Local Authorities have spent on Children’s Centres has has reduced significantly (we calculate a fall of approximately 28%). Despite this, Children’s Centres have held up pretty well, and 67% of the population still live within a mile of a centre, but there is still a risk. As funding decreases LAs have certain options: make efficiency savings without affecting frontline services; reduce services across the board or target reduced resources on those who need it most. The first of these has happened, but can only go so far. Some LAs are choosing to focus their spending on poorer areas, but on average centres in poor areas are having their budgets cut at very similar rates to those in wealthy areas. This may meet with less local resistance, but with limited funding it is more important to ensure that there is a truly useful service maintained in deprived areas, rather than a diminished one across the country.
But this is not all that is needed. We also need to be able to see if what they are doing is working, and for this we need better data. Currently we ask centres to come up with their own ways of assessing their impact on children over the years; unsurprisingly perhaps this is not very successful – centres are employing staff who are able to engage with children, rather than run econometric models. We need to be clearer on what we want to see and what would be helpful to compare centres between each others, and ask all centres to report in a clear and reliable way the same information – what interventions they are running, for which children and so on. This will give us an idea of whether they are making choices based on good evidence that are likely to help children. If this data is collated nationally and made freely available, like the National Pupil Database, the research on long-term impact can be done by people who are trained to do it. Alongside proper financial transparency about exactly what is being spent where, we could start to have some real value for money assessments.
One intervention that has been shown to work is early education, so although it means a reduction in funding for Children’s Centres we do support the transfer of money for free education for deprived two year olds. However this only works if it is high quality, and there is real concern that there may not be enough good childcare places. One way to raise standards would be to lower the income-threshold for tax-free childcare (lowering it to £60,000 could save £238 million) and reinvest the savings in schemes with a proven track record of improving quality.
Other practical steps can be taken; Children’s Centre leaders and advisory boards perform very complicated functions, yet the training they have access to is limited in comparison to that of headteachers or governing bodies. Working with other agencies and especially sharing data is always a problem for centres that are meant to do ‘joined-up working’. Shared training might help, as would ensuring all LAs have a ‘Tell Us Once’ option for sharing birth registrations with Children’s Centres.
This government has made an impressive commitment to the theory of early intervention, they now have the chance to go further and say that they will be the government to translate this noble theory into effective practice, using transparency of funding and data as their tools.