David Cameron, Prime Minister and MP for Witney
“I know how vital these services are for many local people and I firmly believe they should remain open.
All councils need to do their bit to make savings and pay off Labour’s deficit, but I would encourage the County Council to follow the best practice of Conservative councils from across the country in protecting frontline services. There is still significant scope for sensible savings across local government to be made by back office consolidation, disposing of surplus property and joining up our local public services.”
BBC South Today Interview with Peter Henley the Conservative party Conference 5th Oct 2015
Peter Henley: I started by asking all about cuts, and in particular cuts to Oxfordshire Children’s Centres, which he, as a local MP has opposed, I said as PM shouldn’t he do something about it?
David Cameron: Oxfordshire’s spending power, if you combine the grant it gets with the money it raises from Council tax, Oxfordshire’s spending power is actually going up, not down this year, so I think…
Peter Henley: Are they just being stupid?
David Cameron: They need to do what other Conservative councils are doing and look at how to save money by sharing costs with other councils, making sure they rationalise the buildings they have, making sure they find savings in the back office so they can protect the front line services.
Peter Henley: So you are telling them that?
David Cameron: I’m saying that’s what they should do very clearly.
Chris Sewell, Former Family and Community Support Manager for Oxfordshire County Council
Children’s Centres provide vital services for children, families and communities and are part of the county’s strategy to provide early intervention for children and families in need. They promote children’s development, parental involvement, parenting skills, healthy lifestyles, personal development and empowerment. They also protect children from harm and can intervene as and when the needs of children and families arise, providing access to specialist services. They need to be a community based service so that people can attend voluntarily and without barriers of access and geography. It is right that they should target their services in areas where need is greatest, but this does not mean that services should be restricted to those in greatest need. To do so removes their ability to respond to the needs that most parents feel at some stage in their family life and allows a vacuum to develop in which problems can escalate to the point where children’s safety is at risk. Further, to deny access to parents within the locality who are not perceived as ‘in need’ cuts the most vulnerable parents and children off from the support that they can get from fellow members of the community. ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’.
Sadly the County Council has decided that they can no longer provide preventative services and has decided to focus on early intervention once children are at risk. We need both prevention and intervention. The present proposals to provide services in a very limited number of places with outreach to ensure a wider spread are based on a false premise that the most vulnerable are best cared for in isolation from other parents. Those of us who have run parenting groups know that parents learn and change most through their interaction with fellow parents and that mixed groups, if well managed, are a superb source of mutual support for parents. The highly successful Parenting in the Community course at Rose Hill has been an excellent example of this for many years. It has been both preventative and a means of intervention in specific cases of risk. We may ask what is proposed to happen once prioritised families have been supported and are considered to be no longer at risk? Who will provide ongoing support? This is just what children’s centres provide. Without children’s centres the safety net won’t be there and they may very likely become isolated and vulnerable once again.
The prospect of families falling back time and again due to the lack of community support must be a great concern. Not only will it badly affect the quality of life for their children, it will also be wasting scarce resources. In the long run children’s centres save money.
The current regressive proposals take us back fifteen years to the dark days of stigmatised family centres with families taxied in to centres at the command of the courts or social workers. Parents feared the intervention (or interference as they saw it) of social workers and many parents resisted attempts to draw them into open-access sessions such as stay and play. Vulnerable parents and children do need specialist support, but within the context of a wider community of supportive and confident parents. The proposed model of ‘one coherent 0-19 years’ service’ will not provide an ‘integrated response to families’ needs’ nor will it prevent the escalation of need. I believe it will ignore the needs of parents at a lower level of need and will lead to an escalation of those needs.
The proposed model is a million miles from the universal and integrated services that Children’s Centres currently provide. Children’s Centres are a launch pad to give all young children, especially the most vulnerable, the best possible start in life. They are also a safety net that catches and supports those in greatest need and refers them on for multi-agency support where necessary. Take the safety net away and many more will fall and they will not have the access to the mutual support of parents and the timely interventions of professionals. Most Children’s Centres have built up local networks of support involving local schools, health practitioners, playgroups, childcare, parenting groups, basic skills and, yes, the much maligned ‘stay and play sessions’ which provide a strong local safety net. The safety net also provides community cohesion by involving many minority groups such as refugees and asylum seekers, ethnic minorities, victims of domestic abuse, teenage parents and, of course, fathers. They provide an inclusive and safe place for many on the margins of society, helping them to feel included in their local community. Stronger self-sufficient communities are an invaluable benefit of integrated services at Children’s Centres. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Despite the menace of austerity, we need to retain prevention as well as intervention. To enable integrated services to be delivered we need an element of accessible professional support in communities along with voluntary sector support, parental involvement and suitable community buildings. Don’t kid ourselves that buildings suitable for young children and parents can automatically be used for youth work – and vice-versa. We need an appropriate mix of resources. The County Council is right to allow for local communities/groups and parishes to play a part in service delivery, but don’t be deceived into thinking that being able to bid for funding for alternative models will plug the gap left after the closure of centres. There will be winners and losers and short term funding will provide little security even for the winners. At a stroke universal services will be scrapped and what remains in the voluntary sector will have to rely on the lottery of a bidding process to maintain open-access services. There will be a heavy price to pay if we remove preventative services. More children will be at risk as a result.
Children’s Centres provide the best preventative support and targeted work that we have seen in generations. Don’t ignore the evidence of effectiveness. Integrate services as effectively as you reasonably can but make sure that preventative services, through children’s centres, are a major part of that mix.
Chris Sewell, Former Family and Community Support Manager for Oxfordshire County Council
Sue Gerhardt, Psychotherapist and co-founder of OXPIP (Oxford Parent Infant Project)
EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING AND CHILDREN’S CENTRES
This is a mad situation when the Government’s own “guidance” to the Local Authority tells it to give children a better start in life, confidence and emotional well-being- whilst at the same time demanding the kind of budgetary cuts which undermine any chance of making these good things happen. It’s a bit like insisting all children MUST eat nutritious food – but then preventing vegetables getting to the supermarkets.
What on earth can Oxfordshire County Council do? The best option would be to challenge the Government. After all, the Government puts a duty on local authorities to improve children’s emotional well-being and to provide sufficient children’s centres to meet the needs of local parents and young children. (Another less popular option might be to ask the people of Oxfordshire if they are willing to raise council tax by the amount needed- something that might cost each working adult in Oxfordshire about £15 a year).
But to stand up for children in Oxfordshire, the County Council and our local Health and Well-being Board would need to be fully convinced of just how important children’s centres are. And I’m not sure they do ‘get it’. My own work has shown the huge impact of early experience on children’s brains and their future mental and physical health. But parents themselves need to feel supported and valued and encouraged if they are going to give their babies and toddlers the consistent, loving care they need to achieve the best development. Many ordinary parents are not “at risk” in social services terms but still need support- for example, professional help with breastfeeding or psychotherapy if they’re depressed or need help bonding with their babies. All parents feel better when they’re not isolated, and have somewhere to go to meet other parents and to share experiences around pregnancy and birth -to know they’re not alone with the sleepless nights and the crying. These things are gold dust to parents who are feeling lonely at home- as at least a quarter of them are, according to latest research.
What will happen if there is nowhere to go? Isolated and unsupported parents get stressed. Many will get depressed. Some may get more irritable and harsh. If their mental health was already shaky, it often gets worse. This doesn’t put them in a good frame of mind to help their babies to learn how to manage their emotions. Distracted and stressed parents are much less able to give their children the close attention and guidance that young children need to develop well. But this early emotional learning is so important that it underpins much of what happens in later life- including academic achievement. So all the fine aspirations to “raise achievement” and targets to reduce inequalities in life chances will go nowhere if these emotional foundations are not laid.
It is so short-sighted not to enable parents to feel connected and part of a community of parents, which is what Children’s Centres offer. In the long term, not investing in this kind of early years provision will cost us all a lot more. When mothers become chronically post-natally depressed, their babies have a much higher risk of ending up depressed themselves in later life. Then we all pay for the £282 million annual bill currently spent by the NHS on anti-depressants (costing about £7 a year for each working age adult). When children are treated harshly in early life, they are more likely to develop anti-social behaviour and a lack of self-control. All this costs us money through public expenditure on police, courts and prisons. It’s harder to calculate the cost of wasted educational potential, but children who don’t learn to manage their emotions well in early life are also unlikely to achieve their best in school (one of the key targets of our local Health and Wellbeing Board).
Early parenting has long term consequences for both physical health and emotional well-being. We need the County Council to understand this and to help all parents to do this demanding job of laying the foundations for a productive, happy society. Children’s Centres are a key part of this essential provision. They must not be closed.
Sue Gerhardt, Author of Why Love Matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain (2014), Psychotherapist and co-founder of OXPIP (Oxford Parent Infant Project)
Angela Davis, Historian of Children and Families at University of Warwick
As a historian of children and families in the twentieth century I have been deeply concerned by the proposals to close all of Oxfordshire’s children’s centres. Having researched the history of childcare for the under fives in my recent book Pre-school childcare in England, 1939–2010: Theory, practice and experience (Manchester University Press, 2015), which particularly considers the Oxfordshire experience, I am convinced this is a backwards step which will negatively affect families and children in the county.
In my research, which was based on interviews with children who attended childcare, parents who had sent their children to childcare and practitioners working in the field as well as documentary evidence, I found that even good quality childcare (such as nursery places) could not alone militate against the effects of deprivation and disadvantage; early intervention working with parents, as well as children, had the best long-term outcomes.
However the research also demonstrated the importance of children’s centres remaining a universal service. Children and parents who did not have the opportunity to attend services such as children’s centres talked about the isolation and loneliness they faced. In contrast, children who did attend such places explained how they benefitted from meeting children from different backgrounds and how they felt this made them more confident in dealing with people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds both as children and as adults. In addition parents recalled the importance of receiving peer and professional support.
Finally, vulnerable children identified as most needing intervention will suffer if a referral only service replaces the current universal provision. The day nurseries that had cared for children from disadvantaged backgrounds prior to the establishment of children’s centres were viewed negatively by both users and the wider community. Parents who sent their children to day nurseries and the children themselves were stigmatised by day nursery attendance, and they told me this had negatively impacted them throughout their future lives.
Dr Angela Davis, University of Warwick