As many as 1,000 Sure Start centres across the country have closed since 2009 – twice as many as the government has reported – according to a major new analysis published by the Sutton Trust.
Between August 2009 and October 2017, official government data recorded a 14% drop in centre numbers, from 3,632 to 3,123. But today’s Stop Start report for the Trust by leading Oxford University academics finds this is likely to be a big underestimate because there is no clear definition of a ‘children’s centre’.
Due to local mergers, reorganisations and service reductions, many of the original centres have been converted to ‘linked sites’, which offer fewer services and are counted by some authorities but not by others. Looking at just ‘registered children’s centres’ themselves, the drop since 2009 is more than 30%. In areas that have not had closures, local authorities have had to reduce services and staffing.
The Sure Start Children’s Centre programme, introduced in 1998 by the last Labour government, brought together ‘under one roof’ services for young children and their families. Focused initially on the most disadvantaged areas in England, the programme was later extended to all areas. By its peak in August 2009, there were 3,632 centres, with over half (54%) in the 30% most disadvantaged areas. However, in recent years, its status as a key national programme has diminished, accompanied by substantial budget cuts, the suspension of Ofsted inspections and increasingly uneven local provision.
Stop Start finds big regional variation in the extent of closures. By 2017, sixteen authorities who had closed more than half of their centres accounted for 55% of the total number of closures. But in areas with fewer closures there’s been a reduction of services and staff, leading to fewer open access services such as Stay and Play and more parents having to rely on public transport to find a centre offering what they need.