“The Tories have now closed more than 800 Sure Start centres … shutting the door in the faces of our children and their parents.”
Angela Rayner MP, 27 September 2016
Sure Start centres provide childcare, family support and health advice. There are fewer of them in England now than there were before the change of government in 2010, although not all have shut their doors as such. Hundreds are still providing services, but no longer meet the official definition for a Sure Start centre.
300 or 1,000 fewer centres, depending on what you count
Like previous Labour claims about Sure Start, Ms Rayner’s figure appears to come from Freedom of Information requests. The Labour Friends of Sure Start group says FOI responses show that “between 2010 and 2015, 763 Children’s Centres were closed in England”.
The latest figures generally available seem to show a still greater drop, of over 1,000. There were 3,631 Sure Start centres in April 2010, in the final days of the last Labour government. In December 2015, there were 2,605. (We aren’t aware of any more recent figures.)
But that’s not the end of the story.
For one thing, statisticians warn that the two figures can’t be compared directly. The old ones were produced by the Department for Education; the newer ones come from lots of local authorities who all make their own corrections to the Sure Start database.
More fundamentally, the answer depends on what you count.
Only centres that meet the description laid down by law can be called a Sure Start Children’s Centre. But there are also additional sites that “remain open offering access to some of the early childhood services on behalf of another children's centre”.
The government tends to include these additional sites in the count, and says it’s justified in doing so:
"In many cases, there has simply been a merger of management with children's centre functions still being provided on the same number of sites. It would therefore be inaccurate and misleading to claim that these figures show how many children's centres have 'closed'".
As of late 2015, there were 731 of these sites. So the change from 2010 is more like 300 than 1,000 if these are counted.
It’s hard to say which figure more accurately represents the reality of reduced services. The charity 4Children used to argue (before it closed) that not all additional sites offer the same level of service as a full Sure Start centre, and so at least a couple of hundred shouldn’t be counted. That points to an answer somewhere in the middle.