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A critical moment for children’s centres and hubs


24 Nov 2020

Carey Oppenheim, project lead for early childhood at the Nuffield Foundation, reflects on the findings of EIF’s new report on early childhood services and what this means for the leadership of services for families with young children.

EIF’s recent report on children’s centres and hubs could not be more timely. The economic, social and health consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have put a spotlight on the pre-existing challenges faced by families with young children and those who deliver services to them. This is acutely the case for disadvantaged families. 

The EIF report documents the change from a vision of universal children’s centres with integrated services all in one place, to a highly localised and often fragmented service that has had to adapt to vastly reduced funding and increasing levels of need in recent years. Despite these pressures, some local areas have managed to innovate, trying out new approaches such as integrating programmes to reduce parental conflict and family support alongside early years provision. Others have struggled. There are worrying gaps in knowledge and provision. Children with special education needs and disabilities are particularly reliant on children’s centres for joined-up services. Children who are in the child welfare system, at risk of abuse and neglect, are less likely to access early years education and care.

The concept of coordinated and integrated services around the needs of young children and their families is critical. It's easy for young children’s needs to get lost in the crowded policy landscape. The EIF report draws out the different children’s centre models in operation at the moment, it emphasises the importance of local areas establishing clarity about the purpose of the services, the outcomes that are being targeted, and the need for much better evidence in understanding which models are effective. All of which is welcome. 

Four issues are striking in reading this report, and these are some of the issues we are looking at in the Nuffield Foundation’s Changing face of early childhood series. First, the need for a national policy perspective on early childhood services, including children’s centres, to establish overall objectives, what quality looks like and data to capture the effectiveness of different approaches. This doesn’t mean central government doing it all – but providing leadership and clarity about the future of services for families with young children. This is especially important in the context of the many changes that have taken place in young children’s lives over the last two decades. 

Second, as new models of children’s centre provision are developed it is important to combine a whole-family approach with a focus on early childhood development. These are intrinsically linked. Family relationships, parenting and home learning activities have a profound impact on how young children develop and thrive. Early childhood is a foundational stage which requires sustained investment, a skilled workforce and coordination. 

Third, there has been a vast expansion in free early years and childcare provision both to 2-year-olds living in disadvantaged families and to all working parents with the 30 hours’ free childcare provision. There has also been a large increase in paid-for childcare in the private, voluntary and independent sectors to facilitate parents working. Yet policy and practice at the national level (and sometimes at the local level) between children’s centres and early years and childcare provision are not joined up. Coordinated services could be organised around early years and childcare settings in areas where there are no children’s centres, to reach disadvantaged children. 

And finally, policies to address child poverty are usually seen as separate to early years provision, and yet they have a profound influence on children’s experiences and outcomes.  

Now is a critical moment to review how children’s centres have been working, who they are reaching, how far they reduce inequalities, and what we can do to improve them. The EIF report provides important insight into these questions.

To hear more from Carey join the Nuffield Foundation webinar, 'Well-being in early childhood: how are the lives of families with young children changing?', on Thursday 26 November at 2pm.

About the author

Carey Oppenheim

Carey is an EIF associate and former chief executive.