Last week I submitted my formal response to the consultation on Children’s Centres in the Wakefield District. As many local people will know, I am, and have always been, a regular visitor to all our local Children’s Centres – speaking to staff and parents about the support they are receiving and how centres are being used.
In 1997 there were no Children’s Centres. By 2010 there were over 3,500 across the country, including the 23 in the Wakefield District. They were set up in the heart of local communities to provide essential services to parents and to give every child the best possible start in life.
In difficult economic times, with budgets extremely stretched, I fully understand and appreciate the need for local authorities to make savings. However, our Children’s Centres are a precious resource, the loss of which could affect generations of parents and children.
Children’s Centres were designed to be a universal service for all families with children under five. They are non-judgemental places which any parent can and should visit regularly or turn to if events cause problems in their lives. And while it is clearly a vital part of the role of children’s centres to reach out to the most vulnerable in society to ensure they are receiving the services and support they need, those in need of support aren’t always the people we thing they are.
And I’ve always believed that our Children’s centres are really important places, vital community assets which I want to support and protect.
Of course some Children’s Centres are better than others and there are always ways in which centres can be improved. However as a regular visitor over the years and after speaking to so many parents in recent months, I am seriously concerned that the loss of such community assets could have a serious long-term impact for children and parents in my constituency.
The Stanley Children’s Centre in particular is a very active centre and I have been a very regular visitor over many years. During the course of the consultation period, I attended a busy “Stay and Play” holiday session at Outwood Memorial Hall as part of their outreach activities and spoke to parent and last month, I invited local parents attending the centre to a meeting to hear their views. Over 500 local parents also presented me with a petition backing the Stanley Centre. Some parents also contacted me directly in my office to raise their concerns about proposals affecting the Stanley Children’s Centre.
Parents I spoke to had attended open sessions for parents, used the centre for its crèche support. Some had accessed training and volunteer programmes, others had sought out advice and support for post-natal depression or for support with a disabled child or a child with Special Educational Needs. Some had been supported via the Children’s Centre to flee domestic violence.
Parents I spoke to told me about the support and advice they had received at the centre to help them manage a child or children with special educational needs, including physical disabilities and autism. “There was always a friendly face and cup of tea if you were having a difficult day” one told me. Another told me how big a problem isolation can be for parents, especially those with children with a disability. “I really need to get out of the house but can’t travel far.”
At least 5 of the women who attended my meeting said that they had used the Children’s Centre to get help dealing with post-natal depression. One mum told me, “I had severe post-natal depression with my second child and didn’t talk to anyone. At the Children’s Centre staff got me out to some of the groups and came to see me at home too. It was a huge help.”
One of the parents who attended my meeting was currently fleeing domestic violence. Another had done so previously. They spoke of the Children’s Centre as a safe place where they could access the advice and support they needed to make difficult decisions for themselves and their children.
Regardless of the reason the parents I spoke to had originally gone to the Children’s Centre, they all spoke of it as a place to access friendship and support. One mum told me, “I was so low, it’s so hard on your own, so lonely. Within 3 weeks of attending sessions at the Children’s Centre I felt totally different.” Many parents told me how important it is to meet other parents as a source of advice and support so you could all learn from each other. “It’s reassuring and makes you feel like a ‘normal parent’.”
At least four of the parents I spoke to had accessed training and childcare support through the children’s centre. It had made it possible for them to gain qualifications and move into work. All said if the centre hadn’t been close by this would have been much more difficult.
I also know that many local childminders use the Stanley Centre regularly. I have attended meetings with childminders at the centre at which they’ve told me how important the support to deal with Ofsted inspection and the Early Years Foundation Stage was in ensuring they are providing a high quality environment for the children they care for.
The concerns that were raised with me that I have raised in the consultation included:
- Increased travel time to another centre as most of the parents I spoke to didn’t have access to their own transport and said they would struggle to get to a centre if it wasn’t based locally.
- Whilst parents were keen on having some play sessions taking place in other local venues – such as community centres or church halls – they did have concerns about the suitability of some venues. None felt they would be as well-equipped as the current Children’s Centre.
- Parents felt strongly that if the centre moves to an outreach-focused approach it will change the environment within the centre. Parents currently feel that the Children’s Centre doesn’t feel “official” and is a friendly, safe and non-judgemental place where staff care about the people coming through the door.
- Parents said they felt the job of a Children’s Centre is to help people, not to judge them. They said that at the Stanley centre staff knew them by their first name not just a number on a file somewhere and that environment should be retained. They didn’t want the place to become simply a base for social services which would change the role of the centre and the feeling parents would have about going there.
- While the Children’s Centre is a place for lots of services to be accessed, it is the only resource in the community specifically for parents and young children. Parents felt that losing this asset would mean they would also lose everything that makes a Children’s Centre different to other services.
- The parents I met and have spoken to didn’t disagree with the need to reach those most in need, but did question how people made those decisions and decided who was vulnerable. They felt strongly that, with issues such as post-natal depression, domestic violence and children with disabilities, it isn’t obvious who is most in need and that problems can quickly escalate if support isn’t available quickly and easily. Having a non-judgemental place was important and they didn’t think the centre would be as successful if people just went because they’re “on some list or other”. They all thought it was important that Children’s Centres remained places parents are prepared and happy to go voluntarily.
- Parents were concerned that parents / parents to be weren’t routinely given information about the children’s centre. How parents find out about local centres is clearly an issue which could be addressed by changes brought about through the consultation.
- Some parents said they had visited other Children’s Centres and felt that the Stanley Centre is a successful centre. They said it was much more important to improve the centres that aren’t working as effectively rather than to close successful centres like Stanley.
- The parents I spoke to understood the pressure the local authority is under to save money but questioned the strategy that had singled out a centre that was delivering good results. Many also felt that the Stanley centre already saved money because it had supported so many of them into training or work but understood these savings are sometimes difficult to quantify.
I asked all the parents I spoke to what made Children’s Centres different. They told me:
“It is a safe environment and a special place for parents, babies and young children.”
“Their only purpose is to be there for parents and children.”
“It’s a real community resource that, if we lose it, would be very difficult to get back.”
What struck me most about the parents I’ve spoken to over the last few months is how passionate they are about how important the Stanley Children’s Centre is and has been to them, and also its importance more widely within the local community. I hope we can keep the centre as a vital resource for parents and under 5s in our area.