Funding for children’s centres in England has been cut by a third over two years, according to opposition figures
More than 400 Sure Start children’s centres have closed during the first two years of coalition government, with over half of those still open no longer providing any onsite childcare, according to Labour.
Despite claims by the prime minister, David Cameron, before the last general election that he “backed” Sure Start, Labour says £430m was cut from English local authority Sure Start budgets between 2010-11 and 2012-13.
London (126) and the south-east (62) are the regions that have seen most closures, according to Labour’s figures, which were obtained through parliamentary questions. At local authority level, the three councils that have closed most children’s centres are Conservative-run: Lincolnshire, Hampshire and Cornwall.
Using freedom of information responses received from 151 of England’s 152 top-tier councils, Labour estimates that Sure Start funding has been cut by one third over the past two years – a real terms reduction of £431,844,582. Within this figure, day-to-day running costs were cut by 19%, while capital funds were reduced by 96%.
Ministers have said that of the 401 closures, only 25 were what it termed “outright closures”. The other 376 centres were reduced by reorganisations, including the merger of two or more centres. A Department for Education spokesperson said of the Labour figures: “This is nonsense. There are over 3,000 Sure Start centres in England and as this PQ [parliamentary question] states just 25 have actually closed, less than 1%. They are open to all and targeted at the poorest children.
“Less than 4% of full daycare is offered by Sure Start centres. We will give poorer two-year-olds 15 hours of free childcare every week and we are reforming funding arrangements to make sure more money goes to the frontline.
“We are also increasing funding to £2.4bn in 2013-14 and to £2.5bn in 2014-15. Councils continue to have the freedom to spend this where it’s needed most, including Sure Start centres.”
Labour cites a census of 500 Sure Start children’s centres published by the 4Children charity last July, which showed that 55% had abandoned onsite childcare, and a fifth were charging for services that were formerly free. A fifth had reduced the number of qualified teachers and a further 20% reported they would have to reduce childcare staff.
That report concluded that despite heavy cuts, many local authorities had tried to protect Sure Start funding, and children’s centres were “a picture of resilience and creativity”. But 4Children warned that this “impressive fortitude” may not be sustainable in the long run.
The charity said it had not revisited the issue since its survey was published last year.
Sharon Hodgson MP, Labour’s shadow children’s minister, said Cameron had broken his promise to be the most family-friendly government. She said: “Before the election, David Cameron said he would protect Sure Start. But on his watch we have seen over 400 children’s centres shut down, and the services they provide cut as well.”
The survey is published just days after it emerged that £150m topsliced by the education secretary, Michael Gove, from English local authority funds earmarked for early intervention projects such as Sure Start and family support will be spent on the government’s adoption strategy.
Local authorities see this as a further drain on their early years resources. Last autumn the government signalled that £1.5bn currently given to councils to spend as they see fit on early years projects will be spent instead on funding the government’s commitment to provide free nursery education for two-year-olds.