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Children’s Centres

Volume 462: debated on Thursday 28 June 2007

8. What assessment he has made of the impact that children’s centres are having on levels of inequality among young children. (146026)

An evaluation strategy for children’s centres is being developed, and the rigorous and independent national evaluation of Sure Start is monitoring Sure Start local programmes as they transform into children’s centres. In 2005, emerging findings highlighted the fact that there were already positive overall effects on parenting and on child outcomes for most families in those very disadvantaged areas. They also identified the need to work harder to reach and support the most disadvantaged families. We have taken steps to ensure that children’s centres do so.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and I am glad that a proper evaluation of the impact of children’s centres on families is under way. May I probe her a little further specifically on child inequality? Is there any evidence that areas with children’s centres have greater or less child inequality than similar areas that do not have children’s centres?

As part of the series of reports in the national evaluation of Sure Start, four further reports will be published today. Research in one report shows faster reductions in child poverty in Sure Start areas compared with England as a whole. That research looked at local programmes over five years, and identified improvements which, however, we cannot correlate directly with Sure Start, because a number of other factors in those areas need to be taken into account. None the less, that is encouraging because in Sure Start areas, as I have said, there are greater decreases in the percentage of children living in workless households, and improvements in child health, with fewer respiratory illnesses and severe injuries, which reflects the better integration of services in Sure Start areas.

While it is undoubtedly true that Sure Start education centres are popular and successful, does the Minister acknowledge the Birkbeck research in that evaluation programme, which clearly shows that the centres do not reduce inequality, because they do not address the differing language skills of different social classes?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a high level of satisfaction with children’s centres. In another piece of research, 90 per cent. of parents were very satisfied, and 9 per cent. were quite satisfied with them. Parents certainly believe that they are getting what they need for their children from children’s centres. Language acquisition is an important part of the redevelopment of the early years foundation stage which, as he will know, will be delivered in any setting for an early-years child from nought to five. That focus on communication, literacy and language is a vital part of ensuring that children develop those skills and it will enhance their well-being as a whole.

Although the evaluation is important, I am sure that, like me, my right hon. Friend has talked to parents who think those centres have changed their lives completely. However, I wish to pursue the point about those who are most disadvantaged. While the children’s centres in my Loughborough constituency have reached many of the disadvantaged, the most disadvantaged are probably still not being targeted and extra work is being done to bring them in. Can she explain in a little more detail what measures are being taken to reach out even further to those who would benefit most from the vast array of services provided through the children’s centres in Loughborough?

My hon. Friend is right. In tackling inequality, which is the next big challenge for all public services, not just children’s centres, the crucial question for us is how those public service professionals, health visitors and so on can reach the people who are the most disadvantaged, who will not find their way to services voluntarily or easily for all kinds of reasons. With reference to children’s centres, we have issued clear guidance on how that outreach work needs to be done. Universal services such as health visitors, which are non-stigmatising and go to every household when a child is born, have a key role to play. Building on that role, we have funded the nurse-led family partnerships, which are using specialist health visitors with first-time very young parents, often teenage parents, to work with them not just for the first few weeks, but from pregnancy right through until children are two years old and more. They, too, will work through children’s centres and provide a strong lead as to how we can develop this important outreach approach.

The Minister will be aware of a number of reports out in recent weeks showing that social mobility in the United Kingdom has declined to the point that it is the worst of any developed country where it is measured. Given that there are many advantages to the Sure Start programme, but that a great deal of public money is spent on it, is she prepared to make any claim as to how the Sure Start programme might improve social mobility for our fellow citizens in the future?

First, it is important to put the record straight. In fact, social mobility started to decline in the 1980s and 1990s under the Conservative Government. What we have managed to do so far, which is not enough for this Government, is to halt that decline. That is the first stage in reversing the decline in social mobility, which is our objective. Secondly, the focus on early years, which this—

Local Liberal Democrat councillors have welcomed children’s centres as a part of tackling child poverty, but Tory councillors have said that they would close children’s centres unless they were a proven success. That has caused concern for local parents. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House on what basis councillors would be able to close children’s centres, and give my constituents some reassurance?

Just in case any councils in the future thought they might be able to reverse the trend, we have enshrined the integration of services for the early years though children’s centres in legislation in the Childcare Act 2006, which received Royal Assent in July last year.

Without commenting on the right hon. Lady’s potential for upward mobility later today, may I ask how she responds to the conclusions of the Sutton Trust report, which found that social mobility has declined to its lowest level in the UK for 20 years, and the National Audit Office’s report in December last year, which found that of the children’s centres visited, only nine out of 30 actively targeted the harder to reach? Does she agree that her end of term report will read, “The Government must try harder”?

We made it clear from the outset, which is why we have put all the phase 1 children’s centres in the most disadvantaged areas, that we see that as an essential long-term programme focusing on the youngest children, directly reducing child poverty and improving social mobility. We also know that what happens in practice depends very much on the actions of people in those children’s centres. We have made it clear in subsequent guidance that outreach must remain a fundamental element of the children’s centre programme, and that it must be strengthened. Our consultants are working to ensure that that happens in practice.