1. How can I engage in the Consultation? What are the practicalities?

The Oxfordshire County Council consultation runs until the 10th January 2016. Anyone who is an Oxfordshire resident can take part, so please tell everyone you know to get involved. We need as many people as possible to respond to the consultation. We hope that people will reject the council’s proposals.

To take part in the consultation you need to complete a questionnaire. You can also attend one of the open consultation meetings. There are also closed stakeholder meetings, but these are invite-only. You may be able to attend one of these but will need to talk to your local Children’s Centre manager about this.

Please be warned. Many people have told us they have struggled to understand and complete the questionnaire. We think the consultation documents, including the questionnaire, are very technical and confusing. Please do not let this be a barrier to being heard! We will try and demystify the main points below but remember it’s your individual opinion and/or experience of the Children’s Centre that is important, and this includes dads and grandparents!. You can respond to the questions in whatever way you like and you don’t need to complete them all, if you don’t want to. All the main questions have a ‘white space’ box so you can add what YOU feel is important for the council to know.

You can access all the consultation documents via the link here. Children’s Centres, however, will provide paper copies. We highly recommend looking at paper copies of the documents, and particularly the questionnaire, if you want to do this. You can also request copies of the documents in your native language if needed. The Council will accept paper copies of the questionnaire and we think it’s less intimidating to complete this way. There is a freepost address for returns.

If you do decide to complete the questionnaire online, we would advise completing the white space sections in word and cutting and pasting your responses later, as some people have complained they have lost their responses. If you do this, it will stop answers being lost if you need to navigate between pages or there is a problem with your Internet connection. It’s also handy, as you can then also use your text to write a personal letter to your local Parish/County Councillor/MP as well as key council cabinet members!

You may also wish to complete the questionnaire once you’ve had the opportunity to discuss the proposals in more detail. For those of us with children who will struggle to make an evening meeting please ask at your local Children’s Centre if they are having a parents/carers meeting to discuss the consultation. If they are not, you can ask that they arrange one. The Centre can help by inviting all centre users. If you need to, you can get in touch with us and we can help you organise this at your local centre.

There are 13 pages to the online questionnaire. There are mainly questions identifying how you are involved with the services, which services you use and demographic questions e.g. age, gender etc. Questions 6-12 ask about the service changes. Please see below for more information on these questions.

2. Hang on a minute — can you tell me more about Children’s Centres first? What’s the current situation in Oxfordshire?

There is a leaflet about Children’s Centres and the work they do here. The key points are:

  • Children’s Centres offer a large range of services for families with children aged 0-5. Children’s Centres provide universal services (e.g. early learning opportunities for children, parenting courses as well as services from other providers e.g. health visitor/midwives) that can be attended by everyone, and targeted services (support when a family has more significant problems), which are invitation-only.
  • Having a mix of both types of services means that families from all backgrounds can attend. This creates integration where families can build relationships, offer peer support and share skills, all within a safe and supported environment. There is (currently) no stigma attached to attending a Children’s Centre.
  • Universal activities bring in families who otherwise might be hard to reach. Through the positive relationships that are built, families are more likely to take up more activities and services, including targeted services.
  • Children’s Centres are located within their community. By being within a manageable distance for carers with young children, they again help make services easier to access. Oxfordshire currently has a network of 44 Children’s Centres.
  • By providing both universal and targeted services Children’s Centres workers have the skills to act quickly when things are not quite right. By getting to know children and families, staff can arrange appropriate support quickly and sensitively and prevent small problems becoming major ones.
3. What changes does the council want to make to children’s services?

The council provide a summary of their planned changes here. The key points are as follows:

The council plans to close all Oxfordshire’s 44 Children’s Centres and 7 Early Intervention Hubs and create a service that caters for children aged 0-19 years, or up to 25 if the child has additional needs. They have presented three possible ‘options’ for services, none of which we consider acceptable.

The Council plan to open a maximum of eight ‘Children and Family Centres’ for the whole of Oxfordshire.

The services at these centres, however, would only be available, or mainly available, to children that meet the legal threshold as a ‘Child in need’, child on a ‘Child Protection Plan’ or those identified through Oxfordshire’s version of the national ‘Troubled Families’ programme. This means the level of need has to be very high and it will take a formal ‘process’ in which need is assessed, recognised and services allocated.

The centres would have workers providing targeted group programmes and casework, and this may include travelling to other communities to work with families.

The council say there could be some services open to all delivered at the centres, either by themselves or other agencies e.g. health visitors, community organisations, but these would be very limited.

The plans also include an advice service to support and advise other services, for example schools, health and community-based services on early intervention.

The three options they present are as follows:

Option 1: Eight Children and Family Centres across the County. No universal services provided.

Option 2: Eight Children and Family Centres and a very limited amount of universal services provided by the Council, with a corresponding reduction in targeted work.

Option 3: Six Children and Family Centres and £1,000,000 grant funding available to the community and voluntary sector to provide some universal services.

Option 1 Option 2 Option 3
Referral services for those with a very high level of need Yes Yes Yes
Universal services No Some delivered at the centres by centre workers. Grant funding would be provided to external organisations to provide.  They may or may not use the centres.
How many centres? 8 8 6
Centre locations Abingdon, Banbury, Bicester, Didcot, Oxford Barton/Sandhills, Oxford Blackbird Leys, Oxford Rose Hill/Littlemore, Witney As option 1+2 except no centres in Abingdon or Bicester
Outreach support to families Yes There would be reduced levels of targeted group programmes and outreach. There would be reduced levels of targeted group programmes and   outreach.
Work with schools, health and other services Yes Yes Yes
4. What are the key questions in the consultation?

If you’d like an extremely brief and simple guide to completing the questionnaire please click here. Otherwise see below for the key arguments to questions 6-11.

Question 3 asks which Children Centre(s) and/or Early Intervention Hub(s) you use, or have you used? We are worried that this question could be used to prioritise some centres/hubs over others. You could of course tick all 51 options!

  1. How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement:

“It is important to offer more services to vulnerable children/families than to all children/families?

We suggest ticking neither agree nor disagree, or not ticking a box at all and instead using the white space box to respond. This is why. On first glance you think you would agree, however, this is a complex issue that is not fairly addressed by such a simplistic statement. You can try rephrasing it –

“Should we cut services to all children/families and only offer them to those who are already classified as vulnerable?”

We argue that all families are at risk and can become vulnerable in the face of the challenges of raising young children. It can be a very difficult and isolating time. Children are especially vulnerable at this age if parents/carers are not coping. They are defenceless to harm from their carer and vulnerable, as abuse/neglect may have a lasting impact on development.

Universal services provide a means for identifying any family, or individual, who is at risk of developing further problems before those problems become difficult and expensive to resolve.

Attempts to identify those who are ‘most vulnerable’, risks missing many of those in need.

‘Vulnerable children’ to the council means children with an extremely high level of need as defined in law. The Council has a legal obligation to provide services to this group of ‘vulnerable’ people, and the Council has made it clear that it only wants to provide services for this group or those at a very high risk of entering this group, but not for others in the community. There are many that need help but do not meet the threshold. They still need services and help to stop problems developing and worsening.

Those families identified as being ‘most vulnerable’ are likely to feel stigmatised and avoid service involvement. A referral system also risks problems not being addressed in a timely way.

The relatively small cost of providing universal services is offset by the savings made from not having to fund work with families once a problem has developed or got out of hand.

A universal service is cost-effective, as it allows proper community integration, skill-sharing and peer support to exist, rather than more involved and expensive state intervention.

We therefore argue that to provide effective, accessible and well-used services for vulnerable children/families, and to keep the numbers relying on those services at a minimum you also need to provide services for all children/families. Separation of these groups is artificial and counter-productive.

  1. To what extent do you agree or disagree with Oxfordshire County Council’s overall proposal to create an integrated children’s service for 0-19 year olds (25 for young people with special educational needs)?

As we reject the council’s proposal we do not have a comment for this question. We suggest you use the white box respond to say this.

  1. We now want your views on the proposed options for how the integrated children’s service could be delivered.

You are asked to select one of four options –option 1, 2, 3 or none. We encourage everyone to select the fourth option. None of the council’s proposals are acceptable.

As well as the points already made about the general importance of universal services we are concerned that:

  • The reduction in the number of centres means that the centres will not be accessible. This is particularly so for those having to travel with very young children and those from a rural community. Families in rural areas will particularly be affected now that the Council has also approved proposals to cuts subsidised bus routes.
  • The value of universal services at these centres is reduced if most communities cannot easily access them.
  • We are concerned that the proposed advice service would only focus on helping those with the most severe needs to access intervention, and so can in no way match the effectiveness of the current network of centres.
  • It is a waste of money and resources to close and redesign a very well-established and effective service.
  • There is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that savings projected will materialise.
  • There is no impact analysis on the direct and indirect costs in the short, medium and long term to families, NHS Trusts, Social Services, Schools, Police and other services.
  • There is a failure to identify how local needs will be identified and met under the proposed changes and this is against statutory guidance.
  1. Do you have any alternative proposals for how the council could meet the £8 million savings required from the children’s services budget?

We reject this question, as we do not believe these saving are ‘required’ from the children’s services budget. We argue that the increasing need for Children’s services in Oxfordshire, and nationally, suggests that we need to invest more, not less, in services, of which early intervention services are an essential part. We need to understand why there is a particularly large increase in need in Oxfordshire, and invest in stopping that high level of need growing further.

The Council tell us they are forced to make ‘difficult decisions’ because the government is giving the council less money and they cannot balance their budget. However:

  • The government, and David Cameron himself, claim that the local council has adequate funds to, and should, protect frontline services including Children’s Centres.
  • If really necessary, we believe the council should do more to lobby central government for more funds. These services are vital to our communities, and should be protected. We reject austerity as a justification for their loss.
  • No other council has responded to budget reductions with such a wholesale dismantling of Children Centre services.
  • Some of us believe the decision to make cuts to this type of service is driven by a political decision to not invest in public services. We argue that most people, however, care deeply and want the state to invest in services and look after and support those in need. The council should represent us in this view and defend all frontline services.

We suggest you do not tick either the yes or no, box but again use the white space box to explain why you reject the premise of this question.

  1. What are your biggest concerns if the children’s centres or early intervention hubs which you use were to close?

You may wish to write your personal story and experience here. Don’t forget to send a copy to your local councillor and MP.

  1. Do you think that any of the groups/activities currently offered by your children’s centre(s) and/or early intervention hub(s) could be run by volunteers and/or community groups in your local area?

We hope you will tick the ‘no’ box for this question. We do not think that volunteers and/or community groups can offer an effective replacement for the loss of Children’s Centres. We argue:

  • Volunteers and community groups cannot offer the same level of skill. It is the skills that children’s centre workers develop through doing both universal and targeted work that enables them to identify problems early and help families access further services.
  • Centre staff are able to build relationships with centre users that help them to provide sensitive, reliable support to families. Community groups will not be able to provide the consistent availability and quality of support comparable to the Children’s Centres. We do not believe a new ‘advice service’ as proposed by the council can replicate the value of these relationships.
  • There will not be enough voluntary activity to replace what the centres offer. Furthermore community/voluntary services are likely to be created in the more affluent areas, creating a mismatch between provision and level of need.
  • Many community groups are based on religion creating immediate barriers to some harder to reach populations.
  • Community/voluntary services are unlikely to provide the same level of community integration, and promote the same peer-support and skill sharing, in a safe, supported environment.
  • Community/voluntary services will not be able to provide or promote the same wide range of services as the Children’s Centres.
  • Children’s Centres already make use of volunteers and know that volunteers need extensive support, supervision, recruitment and co-ordination.   Many volunteers report they would be uncomfortable in their role without the support they receive.
  • The provision of early years services by voluntary and community organisations creates safeguarding issues, as there is an increased risk that vulnerable children will be targeted by those who seek to do them harm.
  • The continued future of any services is not guaranteed. Community groups are likely to have to regularly compete for an ever-shrinking source of funds and face increasing difficulty ensuring funding.
  1. We have undertaken an assessment of the impact on individuals and groups of the proposals for the proposed new children’s service. This is outlined in the Service and Community Impact Assessment (SCIA). Please give your views on the impacts identified in the SCIA. Have we missed anything?

You may or you may not wish to read the SCIA. You can access this document here.

5. So what is the campaign’s position?

Read our full, evidence-based, position statement here.

In summary:

We do not feel that any of the proposed options will meet the needs of children and families in Oxfordshire:

  • A referral-only service runs the risk of missing many of those who would benefit and need help.
  • A referral-only service is likely to respond slowly to an emerging issue or crisis and may not prevent problems from escalating.
  • Families identified as being in greater need may often find it hard to ask for, or take up, help for fear of being labelled a bad person or parent.

The current proposals are a false economy:

  • Greater need will arise as emerging needs are addressed later and at greater expense, both in terms of damaged lives and money.
  • The proposals do not recognise the value of cost-effective self-help and community development that the centres bring, all within safe supported boundaries.
  • Stigmatising services will be under-used and are likely to fail. Money spent on these services is wasted and they will require an expensive redesign in the future

In conclusion:

  • We reject the three proposals from the Council as we believe that they are designed to meet the need to make cuts rather than to meet the needs of children and parents. There is a lack of robust evidence to justify the proposed changes. We believe that the children and families of Oxfordshire deserve evidence-based policy not ideologically driven austerity.

You may also want to counter some of the common arguments you may meet when discussing the proposed closures.

They say:

“Children’s Centres have not led to a reduction to the number of children on Child Protection plans”

We say:

There are multiple reasons why the referral rate to Social Services has gone up – a major factor being the increased awareness of and sensitivity towards vulnerable children in recent times and following tragic events, such as the the child sexual exploitation scandal.   The growing gap between rich and poor, and lack of investment in health services has likely also contributed.   Children’s Centres aim to help families access services – there needs to be complementary services to help reduce the number of children of protection plans.

“Children’s Centres duplicate other services.”

The Council have offered no evidence to substantiate the claim that services are being duplicated. It is not appropriate to suggest that health visitors and midwives, who already carry substantial caseloads, should take over some of the workload in lieu of the Children’s Centres. In fact Children’s Centres offer a one-stop environment that can offer (and host) a range of services – this is the opposite of duplication! Most importantly, how can you duplicate a sense of community?

“Children’s Centres do not refer a great number of children to Social Services”

Surely this is evidence for and not against the use and value of Children’s Centres! If they are able to support families effectively and provide the early intervention that is clearly needed, then this reduces the need for onward referral to costly statutory services, effectively saving the Council money in the long run!

“The Council should only fund statutory and safeguarding services”

This is a short-sighted view that will be most costly in the long run. It is well known that most problems are best treated as soon as they occur, before they can become chronic and entrenched. This is especially important in the early years of a child’s development. If problems are left to escalate until they meet criteria for statutory services then this will have lasting consequences on a child’s future health, educational attainment, emotional wellbeing and potential.