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Children’s Centres

Volume 476: debated on Monday 19 May 2008

3. What progress has been made towards meeting the target of establishing 3,500 children's centres by 2010. (205966)

There are currently 2,907 designated Sure Start children’s centres offering services to more than 2 million children aged under five and their families. We met our manifesto commitment for 2,500 centres by March this year and we are on track to meet our target of 3,500 centres by 2010—one for every community.

That is indeed good news. I am delighted that there are five Sure Start centres in my constituency. On average, 800 children use them each year, and I am committed to the Sure Start programme. What does my right hon. Friend believe the effect would be on those 4,000 children in South Swindon should the Sure Start programme be closed or not go ahead?

My hon. Friend takes a great interest in the matter and she knows that we are progressively building a new universal service for the youngest children and their families, bringing together health, early years, parent support and employment services, to name but a few. The independent academic evaluation has shown that that is already having a positive impact on children’s development and parents. If anything jeopardised the programme, I am sure that parents, professionals and any sensible person would greet that with dismay.

We welcome the progress on the number of children’s centres, but does the Minister share my concern about the continuous fall in the number of registered child minders, according to Ofsted, in the past year? Has she specifically examined the possible impact of the introduction of the early years foundation stage on the number of people who are willing to undertake that important function?

The number of places for children in early years provision continues to grow. However, we will clearly watch carefully and talk to child minders about any further decrease in their numbers. Having spoken to many child minders, I am convinced that the decline has nothing to do the EYFS, which is simply what good child minders are already familiar doing: having a flexible, play-based approach to children’s development while they are in their care. The early years foundation stage does nothing more than that.

Children’s centres make a big difference in constituencies such as mine. However, a minor problem is that, when they are attached to existing primary schools, with nursery provision extending from nought to five, they can become over-subscribed, as has happened in Milefield school in Grimethorpe in my constituency. Neighbouring Ladywood primary school, on whose governing board I serve, has only three pupils in the nursery unit next year. What more can we do as a Government to try to correct the imbalance that is currently being created in some locations?

I know that my hon. Friend has written to me about the situation in his local area. As I explained to him, the situation is not one that we in central Government can micro-manage. We have laid a duty on every local authority to assess the need in its area, look into the supply and ensure a good match, in order to give parents the most flexibility in affordable child care suited to the needs of the area. However, I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend further about his local situation if that would help.

Given that the early years foundation stage curriculum becomes mandatory in September and that, as the right hon. Lady knows, communication, language and literacy are an important strand of provision for children from birth to the age of five, can the Minister advise the House what progress has been made in clarifying the guidance to be issued to the Department of Health on the provision of speech and language therapy in those children’s centres and on the financing for it? Further to what has just been asked, will she also do something to try to ensure that the excellent children’s centres are extended to the hardest to reach children in some of the poorest parts of the country?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I know the premium that he places on communication and language skills, as do I. I will investigate the question that he raises about guidance for the Department of Health and write to him. I can tell him, however, that speech and language therapists are increasingly working in and through children’s centres, which I am very pleased about. We will also develop a programme, which I think we will call Let’s Talk to help people to develop children’s vocabulary, because we know that that makes a big difference to a child’s ability to communicate.

On outreach, we have also funded two additional workers in every children’s centre, to ensure that we reach those families who would perhaps not necessarily find it that easy to come of their own volition. Going out to those families can encourage them to come into the children’s centres.

The director of the national evaluation of Sure Start has told the Select Committee on Health that an integrated and expanded role for health visitors would make Sure Start significantly more effective. We agree. That is why our policies involve health visitors delivering Sure Start’s vital outreach service. I know that the Minister shares our view that outreach support to the most disadvantaged groups is a critical role for Sure Start, so can she explain to the House why the Government’s plans and budget for extending the service, which were set out in great detail last November in this document—“Sure Start Children’s Centres: Phase 3 Planning and Delivery”—have now been slashed, with outreach in the most disadvantaged areas cut by one third? Outreach is a vital part of Sure Start. Why is it being cut and where has the money gone?

Those on the Opposition Front Bench seem a bit weak on correct information today. The hon. Lady is quite incorrect: the Government are investing a total of £4 billion in supporting services through, and developing further, children’s centres over the next three years, which includes an additional £79 million specifically for outreach work. What we are not doing is having a £200 million cut, which is what the Opposition would propose, and neither are we saying that it is either health visitors—