1000 children's centre closures since 2009

06 April 2018

As many as 1000 Sure Start centres across England have closed since 2009 according to a new study published by the Sutton Trust.

The figure is twice as many as reported by the government whose official data recorded a 14% drop in centre numbers, from 3632 to 3123 between August 2009 and October 2017.

However, the Stop start report by leading Oxford University academics finds this is likely to be a big underestimate because there is no clear definition of a ‘children’s centre’.

As a result of local mergers, reorganisations and service reductions, many of the original centres have been converted to ‘linked sites’, which offer fewer services and are counted by some authorities but not by others.

Looking at just ‘registered children’s centres’ themselves, the drop since 2009 is more than 30%. In areas that have not had closures, local authorities have had to reduce services and staffing. Stop start finds big regional variation in the extent of closures – by 2017, 16 authorities, which had closed more than half of their centres, accounted for 55% of the total number of closures.

But in areas with fewer closures there’s been a reduction of services and staff, leading to fewer open access services such as ‘Stay and play’ and more parents having to rely on public transport to find a centre offering what they need.

The report warns that the closures are creating a ‘postcode lottery’ of early years provision and the children’s centre programme is now at a ‘tipping point’, with more authorities preparing to make drastic cuts this year.

According to the report, ‘services are now “hollowed out” – much more thinly spread, often no longer “in pram-pushing distance”. The focus of centres has changed to referred families with high need, and provision has diversified as national direction has weakened, leading to a variety of strategies to survive in an environment of declining resources and loss of strategic direction.’

Lead author of the report professor Kathy Sylva said: ‘Our national survey of local authorities found wide variation in level of closures and in number of services on offer. This is all the more alarming in light of the government’s own evaluation of Sure Start showing many beneficial effects of children’s centre use on families.

‘At a time of increasing pressure on poor families with young children, there is an urgent need for evidence based services to support them.’

Access the Stop start report here.