The number of Sure Start centres is irrelevant – it’s quality that matters

Labour have pledged to boost Sure Start if they win the May election. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

It is predictable that the Labour Party’s election pledge to expand Sure Start has turned into a row over how many children’s centres have actually closed since the coalition government took over in 2010. This is a sterile debate, be it the 720 that Labour says have closed, or 45 “outright closures” claimed by the Conservatives.

The number actually open is irrelevant if there is no agreement on what services are available for how many days a week and how many hours per day in what kind of neighbourhoods.

The original purpose of Sure Start, launched by the previous Labour government in 1998, was to improve the life chances of children living in poverty by providing services that ameliorate the impact of poverty and encouraging parents into employment. Children’s centres became the delivery mechanism for achieving these aims.

As I understand it, Labour’s shadow education minister Tristram Hunt is promising to reinstate the requirement that the children’s centres in the poorest areas must provide childcare suitable for working parents. This requirement was removed by the coalition government in 2011. He is sensibly not arguing for more children’s centres, just a guarantee of a particular service in a specific group of centres – those in the poorest areas.

Lurking problems on funding

There are some very good reasons to welcome this announcement. Affordable childcare is essential for parents to get into work and is particularly hard to provide in low-income areas without significant public subsidy. The rationale for the original requirement on childcare was that for women using other support services in children’s centres the presence of childcare would itself provide encouragement into work, as it relieves one of the key barriers to employment.

Most of the centres in poor areas have had considerable capital investment. As Hunt points out, we should be making best use of this investment, exploiting local capital assets. Encouraging provision from the private, voluntary and independent sectors is also sensible, but not without its risks.

The downside, as ever, is funding. Even with Labour promising an expansion from 15 to 25 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds, and the free offer of 15 hours for 40% of two-year-olds, it is unlikely that the public subsidy available per place will enable a cost-effective service, let alone a service that makes a profit. And that is the only reason the private sector would be willing to run such services. Even for the voluntary sector, making ends meet on childcare is challenging.

Extending the pupil premium – extra money given to schools for disadvantaged children – to three and four-year-olds will help, but is not enough. I am also unclear on the Labour position on pupil premium.

Teachers should be reinstated

But one vitally important part of the original childcare requirement seems to have been left out of the new commitment. Before the change in 2011, all children’s centres in poor areas were required to have a teacher. Ofsted has urged that school-based childcare is usually of higher quality than that provided by the private, voluntary and independent sectors and should be expanded. The main reason seems to be that school-based care always includes teachers in the staff team, a very expensive proposition for non-state providers.

Teachers have been found to bring a stronger learning focus in childcare settings, but are less likely to be employed in settings run by the private, voluntary or independent sectors. The childcare offered in children’s centres has been found to be of higher quality than in other non-school settings, probably because the funding for children’s centres included the cost of employing teachers.

Give me quality care. Three-year olds via fotomak/Shutterstock

When the requirement for childcare was removed from these centres, so was the requirement for a teacher. Without funding to ensure graduate teacher leadership in centres with childcare, the care is unlikely to provide the boost in attainment promised with the expansion of high-quality early years provision.

Number of centres is irrelevant

I am personally not concerned if 700 or 800 children’s centres have closed. My recommendation is for fewer centres in better-off areas and, as Hunt has promised, centres in poorer areas offering childcare, along with a range of open access and targeted services so vital in poor areas: health advice, employment advice, citizens advice bureau surgeries, stay and play sessions.

The number of centres open is irrelevant if many of the “open” centres are delivering a limited range of services infrequently throughout the week. Mothers and fathers who need the services most are unlikely to keep abreast of odd opening times and a restricted range of services.

The worst of all worlds is to keep funding not very good centres with drastically reduced services. We need to concentrate investment in areas where it is needed most, and invest in improving the quality along with the quantity of childcare and other services that really makes a difference for children and families.