Over 500 Sure Start Children's Centres responded to a census conducted by the national family charity 4Children to gauge their financial viability, their service delivery, their role in delivering childcare, their staffing and their views of the future demands and challenges.

The survey revealed that despite significant cuts within local authority budgets, and the removal of the dedicated Sure Start grant, a picture of resilience and creativity has been found among children's centres, with many local authorities showing a commitment to retain them.

Whilst 60% of Sure Start Centres stated they were coping with significant budget reductions, 15% of centres  indicated that they are currently struggling whilst a massive 50% of centres said that their finances were less sustainable.

Although many centres are providing more services, they are becoming more reliant on charging with over 20% of centres charging for services that were formerly free. Often these are services which are crucial for bridging class barriers and cultures within the community;

Worryingly 55% say they no longer provide any onsite childcare, a situation which may partly relate to the 2011 ruling that removed the duty upon centres in deprived areas to provide childcare. This appears to have had a knock-on effect in some centres as 50% of respondents claimed that they were being oversubscribed. Of the 43% of centres still providing fulltime childcare, 30% provide less than 50 places.

4Children admit thet are concerned about this lack of provision of good quality and affordable childcare given that the provision needs to increase With increasing pressure to find new places for two-year-olds - and believe that Children's Centres should be part of this.

Their concerns are further compounded by the fact that:

- Many centres are having to cut qualified staff over the next few years - with nearly 20% of centres having to reduce the numbers of qualified teachers, and a further 20% saying that they will have to reduce childcare staff;

- Centres are increasingly relying upon volunteers to provide core services with 60% increasing volunteer numbers and 50% reporting that volunteers' hours have increased. Whilst we welcome the active involvement of volunteers, their presence within children's centres must not serve to replace the skills of trained professionals.

As a result of the census, 4children are recommending that:

- Children's Centres must become central to a joined-up approach to early intervention.

- Children's Centres resist the urge to charge for services.         

- Children's Centres continue to supply universal services where possible.

- Children's Centres continue to support parents to take up employment by providing childcare where possible and that they are supported to become a key provider for the extension of the offer of 15 free hours of childcare for vulnerable two-year-olds.

- Children's Centres invest in up-skilling their workforce and resist relying too heavily on volunteers.

Commenting upon the Sure Start Children's Centres Census 2012, Anne Longfield OBE, Chief Executive of 4Children said:

"The importance and value of Sure Start Children's Centres is clear. Children's centres across the country have demonstrated resilience and creativity, and enjoy overwhelming support from professionals working within the sector, parents and communities.

"Now must be a time for development, not decline. There is huge potential for Children's Centres to play their full part in delivering early help and intervention. The task is enormous and it is essential that local and central government continue to provide sustained funding.

"Gains made must not be lost. Children's centres must now be put at the heart of delivering early help and intervention. It is for local authorities, professionals and communities to come together and nurture the potential of Sure Start Children's Centres across the 0-19 age range.

"The framework being proposed by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, at University College London, supplies tools to highlight current good practice, strengthen the already huge potential of children's centres and build in vital monitoring which serves the public and those designing future services.

"Children's centres must be seen as a crucial part of a new approach in targeting services towards the vital early years in a child's life, years that form the foundation for future health, wellbeing and social mobility."

Posted by Penny Hosie