In many ways, Children’s Centres are an innovation in their own right. Integrating health, early years education, childcare, and parent support services into a flexible, reliable offer to children and families, is a social revolution in of itself. The historic divisions between these services, that made little sense to families in the 1990’s now, increasingly, make little sense to the services themselves, resulting in a much more integrated offer.
We know that at their best, Children’s Centres are hugely valuable to families and children, and have a real impact on their lives. They offer childcare, breastfeeding support groups, language and literacy support, and parenting courses. We know that they can play a critical role in addressing issues of poverty and social division, by increasing social support and friendships. They are also inclusive and accessible to all.
However, with the funding crunch biting, Children’s Centres are now being asked to refocus their sights on the most disadvantaged families and children, and demonstrate that they can really make a difference to those who need their help the most. Historically, many of these families have been defined as ‘hard to reach’, but increasingly Children’s Centres are recognising that it sometimes they who are unreachable.
From our ethnographic research with families, we know that many of them struggle with the norms and realities of every day community life. There is fear of where they live; daily isolation of having no-one to trust and turn to; frustration of grinding, unchangeable, daily patterns. We also know that for these families, public services, including Children’s Centres’, are the last place they would turn to. Services are seen as judgmental, elitist, and unresponsive.
Children’s Centre staff are recognising that they need to work with families in new and different ways, to ensure that they offer different and better types of support, which families can actively engage with. This can take a variety of different forms, as we are seeing in our Transforming Early Years project. There are new models of Children’s Centres which embody the principles of co-production, and are working closely with families to design and deliver services more effectively and efficiently. There is also a movement towards greater peer-to-peer involvement for low-level parenting and family support, where professionals are only involved for more targeted, specialist work, thus removing the stigma that many families feel is associated with Children’s Centres. Finally, there is a shift towards many Children’s Centres becoming co-operatives or mutuals, owned and run by parents and the community.
This demonstrates that it is the right time to be asking fundamental questions about the role and form of Children’s Centres, and that within the early years there is a real appetite for change.