Childcare predictions get off to an Unsure Start

3 April 2015

"Over 1,000 Sure Start Centres could go under in the next four years, thanks to the Tories' extreme plans to cut spending in the next Parliament" — Labour, April 2, 2015

Labour's prediction has three key elements: a figure for the number of closures — which is contested; a figure for the decrease in Sure Start funding — which is difficult to compare; and the assumption that trends in both of these will continue — which is uncertain.

Difficult to count

Labour claims in a press release that 763 Sure Start Centres have closed since 2010-11. The Conservatives contest this, with official figures saying that the number has fallen by just 142 since 2010.

It's not the first time that there's been disagreement over the number of Sure Start Centres.

The confusion comes because Centres don't always close outright. Sometimes they become what the government calls an "Additional Site" — where management is provided by another Children's Centre, but some services are still active. The Coalition's count includes all these Additional Sites while Labour's broadly excludes them.

That brings us to a current total of 3,490 Centres on the Coalition's count — a loss of 141 closures since April 2010 (when there were 3,631 Centres). It's not clear why there's a slight discrepancy between this and the 142 figure.

A rough replication of what we think Labour's calculations are — excluding Additional Sites — brings us to 815 closures since 2010. This is how they calculated it last time and it looks like they've used a Freedom of Information request to local authorities again, but Labour hasn't confirmed its calculations to reach a lower 763 figure.

It's been argued that not all these Additional Sites —which don't meet the official definition of a children's centre—provide the same level of service as a full Children's Centre. But even if this is the case, excluding them from the total completely might give a misleading picture of the extent of the closures.

The true figure is hard to estimate, but could be about 3,300 (or 331 closures) if you include only some Additional Sites, according to the charity 4Children which conducts an annual census of Children's Centres.

Difficult to cost

Labour's prediction also relies on knowing how Sure Start funding has changed since 2010. They say funding has been cut by 25%. But as we've said before, it's not easy to compare funding through time because of the many changes to Local Authority funding for children's centres. The most recent figures advise against comparing 2013-14 with 2012-13 because of changes to funding; it's likely that comparisons further in the past are even more unreliable.

It's unclear how Labour calculated the decrease in funding over the last government and due to the difficulties in the comparison, we're not going to attempt our own calculations. They then assume that funding cuts will continue at about the same rate over the next three years, and assume the cuts will have a similar effect on the number of Sure Start Centres in future. That's a lot of assumptions.

"available childcare places have fallen by 40,000 [since 2010]" — Labour press release, April 2, 2015

"Childcare places have increased since 2010. There are over 100,000 more places for parents to choose from than there were in 2010" — Conservative press release, April 2, 2015

The disagreement is another case of different measures and different timescales. The Labour party compares Ofsted figures from September 2009 to August 2014, while the Conservative party compares results from the Department for Education (DfE) childcare survey between September to December 2010 and September to December 2013.

Labour's decrease of 40,000

In August 2014, there were 1.29 million childcare places registered with Ofsted. Labour compares this to 1.33 million in September 2009—that's a fall of 40,000 registered places. But taking a different comparison, from March 2010 there were 1.31 million places: comparing that with the latest figures gives a decrease of 17,000 registered places—less than half of the number that Labour claimed.

The Conservatives' increase of 100,000

The Conservatives' figures include most childcare provision in state schools whereas Labour's figures don't; the two sources also look at different time periods. Even accounting for both of these differences, the two sources don't agree.

It could also be up to 160,000 extra places on this measure, according to published figures—but the Conservatives told us they excluded independent schools, so according to them the total is just 100,000.

Explaining the difference

The two sources count subtly different things. Labour's figures from Ofsted count all places for children aged 8 and under on the Early Years Register. In contrast, the Conservatives' figures come from a survey of a slightly different group of providers, including state primary and nursery schools, most of which aren't included in Ofsted's figures.

It's not clear if one source is more reliable than the other: Ofsted's data come from a register of certain types of provider, but the DfE's figures come from a survey which covers a wider range of providers.

Both sets of figures are for 'registered childcare places' — this is the maximum number of children allowed at a childcare provider at any one time. But some children might attend only in the morning, and a completely different set of children might attend in the afternoon. Registered places only tell us about the maximum size of the provider, not how many children actually attend in total throughout the day.

So each party's figure only gives us part of the story. Labour's figures use more recent data but exclude childcare provision in schools. The Conservatives' figures are older but have wider coverage.

Updated (5 April 2015)

The Conservatives told us that they'd excluded independent schools from their analysis; we've updated the article to reflect this.

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