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Children’s centres and family hubs: complementary visions


19 Nov 2020

Samantha Callan, director of the Family Hubs Network, reflects on the findings of EIF’s new report on early childhood services and what this means for forward policy.

EIF’s new report, Planning early childhood services in 2020, succinctly expresses a widely-shared view that ‘it is difficult to think of a more effective way in which the government might realise its vision to “level up” Britain and ensure equality of opportunity than through ensuring access to high-quality local family services which start in maternity and run throughout childhood.’ 

At the Family Hubs Network, our own vision is for early help to be available to all families who need it, however old their child, in a recognisable, non-stigmatising way. Part of this means universal access to a full range of good-quality early years healthcare and other services, the ‘national children’s centre offer’, included in a locally integrated network of buildings and support according to the principles of the Family Hubs Model – more on which a little later.  

EIF’s study found a variety of approaches across local areas in terms of the ages of children provided for, reflecting awareness that an exclusive focus on the early years does not reflect the realities of family life: significant needs still emerge during a child’s primary and secondary school years regardless of however optimally they experienced early childhood. Early help for such issues is vital to prevent problems from spiralling out of control, derailing life chances and putting a drag on social mobility.  

The report, however, describes a complex, even confusing landscape of provision and nomenclature in local areas: ‘the lack of a common language to clearly specify and distinguish the approaches that they are taking’. We have found that some local authorities re-named their children’s centres as family hubs, without augmenting their provision to meet the needs of children aged 5–19 (and up to 25 if there are special educational needs and disabilities). Others are providing whole-family help, regardless of the age of children, in an integrated and relational way from buildings still referred to as children’s centres. Whatever the label, these are the principles of the Family Hubs Model. 

Buildings’ names often have symbolic meaning for the communities they serve: public consultation may reveal enduring affection for the children’s centre brand or, instead, an appetite for a label that better captures their purpose to help families with the full gamut of their relationships and pressures. Notwithstanding this, it is helpful that the report draws attention to inconsistency in specification, because clearing up confusion is a necessary first step if central government is to start inspecting or otherwise get involved again in local provision. 

The report also notes the shift in focus away from buildings towards dispersed delivery, service integration and virtual/digital ways of working with families and sounds a warning about the impact of fewer open access sites on the ability to build relationships with vulnerable parents. We also emphasise that while physical ‘centres’ are not always where parents’ actual needs are met, recognisable access points are still needed, so that families are aware that help is available, ideally before problems become crises.  

Moreover, the report’s emphasis on complex and evolving local systems is essential. Although it points to the lack of academic, rigorous evidence that a local system operating according to well-honed principles delivers good outcomes for families, it also acknowledges the ‘logical case for more holistic and joined-up approaches to delivering area-based family services’. To this point, the Family Hubs Model principles mentioned earlier are not innovative and theoretically inspired. They are the culmination of three decades of mainstream learning and practice, book-ended by the Children Act 1989 and this year’s Troubled Families early help system guide, which both stress the need for family support centres and integrated hubs. Sandwiched between these is a plethora of other legislation and guidance on the need for joined-up working, information sharing and relational practice which practice-based evidence, at the very least, has found to be effective.  

‘Theory of change’ evaluations which look across a system would help to fill the research gap, but these should not delay central government policy attention. We and others are pressing for a national transformation fund every local authority can bid into to resource, for example, local service planning and coordination, the development of missing services (eg, to support parental relationships) and ‘partners in practice’ opportunities to share learning about what works well and for whom. The report is clear that much of the knowledge about innovation in children’s centres and hubs is held at the local level, and describes a strong appetite for different areas to benefit from others’ experience.  

In conclusion, the patchiness of accessible and preventive family and early years support has been repeatedly flagged, and the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the need still further. The report outlines fundamental questions driving every local area’s activity, such as what are the intended outcomes for children, who the approaches (ie, children’s centres or hubs) are for, and what they do. Answering these will not result in one model of place-based early childhood services effective everywhere, and certainly a top-down, centrally determined blueprint would be given short shrift in councils now accustomed to a free hand in this broad policy area. However, addressing the inconsistency in approach highlighted in the report is essential if all families who need it are to receive early help, including in the early years.