Cuts to children’s centres hitting the most disadvantaged

The mass closure of council-run centres, and the loss of specialist staff, have left many vulnerable families unable to access vital early-years support.

Children’s centre closures across England have devastated communities and left vulnerable families without access to vital education and health support, says UNISON today (Monday).​

Freedom of Information (FoI) requests by the union reveal that over a third (38%) of council-run children’s centres in England have closed since 2010 when the government implemented austerity measures and slashed councils’ financial support.

There were at least 3,106 council-run children’s centres across England in 2010/11. But hard-up local authorities had locked the doors of 1,168 centres by the end of March 2023, the union’s figures show.

Children’s centres play a crucial role in early-years education, and provide working families with childcare, health support and parenting advice.

But the mass closure of council-run centres, and the loss of specialist staff, have left many vulnerable families unable to access vital early-years support.

Local authorities in the South East (68%) and West Midlands (59%) closed the highest proportion of their children’s centres between 2010/11 and 2022/23.

Meanwhile, three county councils topped the list of authorities that closed the most council-run children’s centres. These were Essex (74), Hampshire (70) and Surrey (39).

Across England’s city, unitary, metropolitan and borough councils, troubled Birmingham (38 closures) shut down the most sites. It was followed by Shropshire (23), Somerset (20), Sandwell (20) and Stockport (17).

The data is being released today at UNISON’s annual local government conference in Brighton.

But councils’ latest FoI disclosures do not cover further cuts to children and family services – including early help centres – planned over the next two years at struggling authorities such as Birmingham and Derbyshire, says UNISON.

A separate local government staff survey by UNISON highlights the devastating impact that austerity measures – including children’s centre job cuts – have had on some of the UK’s most vulnerable children and parents.

Staff report a surge in health and mental health issues among children and parents, child learning and speech difficulties, soaring referrals to social services, and a worrying lack of preparedness for school among children – including basic toilet training.

One family support worker describes a young and disabled mum who relies heavily on specialist local support to help her disabled child.

“If it wasn’t for our team supporting this child, unfortunately the child would go into full-time care. This child is loved so much by her mum and siblings. It breaks me to think this loving family could be split up. If it wasn’t for our team, there would be more children going into care,” the support worker warns.

UNISON head of local government Mike Short said: “Every region of England has closed vast numbers of council-run children’s centres – further victims of the government’s misplaced austerity drive.

“Children’s centres are the lifeblood of local communities. They support working and vulnerable parents, and they provide essential education and developmental support to the nation’s children from birth to school age and beyond.

“This research has exposed the harsh reality of centres closing. From leaving vulnerable families in deprived areas and isolated communities beyond the reach of support teams, to cutting the specialist staff who prevent at-risk children from being taken into care.

“Cuts to these crucial services merely create more problems and costs for the future. Ministers and council leaders should invest in children’s centres as part of wider plans to stabilise council finances and provide a boost to parents and youngsters.”

Notes to editors:
– UNISON’s report Sure Start Uncertain Future can be read here. The data was gathered through FoI requests, looking at the period between the financial years 2010/11, when austerity began under the coalition government, and 2022/23.
– UNISON’s annual conferences began yesterday (Sunday) and runs to Friday 21 June at the Brighton Conference centre. Further details of the conferences can be found here.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union with more than 1.3 million members providing public services in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.

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