(2) what steps his Department is taking to ensure children’s centres are father friendly; and if he will make a statement;
(3) what assessment he has made of children’s centres’ effectiveness in working with community organisations.
We now have over 1,400 children’s centres up and running providing services to, predominantly, the most disadvantaged communities. The National Evaluation of Sure Start (NESS) findings on the early impact of 150 of the first Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) (November 2005) identified that of those families in the most disadvantaged areas served by SSLPs, 86 per cent. of the parents in the sample were benefiting from Sure Start. However, this evaluation also found that some of the most socially excluded groups could not be shown to be benefiting from living in a SSLP area. Although the NESS methodology could not identify whether any of the children in the sample had actually attended a Sure Start centre or not, we have taken a number of steps to ensure that the most excluded partners benefit.
In November 2005 the Department issued ‘Practice Guidance’ to encourage greater use of outreach and home-visiting services by children’s centres to reach the most disadvantaged families, which we then updated in November 2006.
To encourage better monitoring and a more systematic approach we issued Planning and Performance Management Guidance in November 2006 which contains a framework for centres to assess their progress in reaching excluded groups in their area.
We also commissioned Together for Children (TfC) to produce a toolkit, issued in December 2006, to complement our Practice Guidance and support centres in gathering information about their area and recording how they engage with excluded groups.
In August, we announced significant additional funds for children's centres for 2008-11 including funding to enable local authorities to add two outreach workers to centres serving the most disadvantaged communities, with a particular emphasis on reaching out to and supporting more fathers.
Research evidence shows that the impact a father's early involvement has on their child is long-lasting. Our revised Practice Guidance therefore emphasises the crucial role fathers have to play in giving their children the best start in life. It provides advice about how children’s centres can tailor their services to meet the needs of fathers, including non-resident parents, how staff should be encouraged to engage proactively with fathers and specific areas where fathers may require additional support. The Planning and Performance Management guidance recommends that children’s centres assess how well they engage with fathers and the TfC toolkit includes advice on working with fathers.
We have not made an assessment of how well children’s centres work with organisations from the community sector. However, an early survey of Phase 1 children’s centres showed that 82 per cent. of children’s centres had contracts with the voluntary sector for services. The Practice Guidance makes clear that local authorities must work with those organisations that have a track record of understanding local needs and delivering services that improve children’s outcomes. In addition, we require local authorities to consult and consider using all private, voluntary and community sector organisations in the area when planning and developing children’s centres services. In 2008, local authorities must review all centres developed in 2003-06 to ensure that maximum use has been made of good quality local private, voluntary and community sector suppliers and repeat this exercise every two years. We expect local authorities to keep evidence that they have carried out the required reviews.