Sure Start: have hundreds of centres been lost?

19 November 2013

Labour opened a new front in its 'cost of living battle' with the government this week, with a speech by Ed Miliband lambasting the Coalition's record on childcare.

Costs are up, places are down and hundreds of children's centres are closing, say Labour.

Amidst the reporting yesterday, a long-standing disagreement between Labour and the government resurfaced. Policy differences aside, neither camp could actually agree on what was happening to children's centres under the Coalition:

Labour: "There are 578 fewer Sure Start centres"

Government: "Only 1% of children's centres— that is 45 children's centres — have closed outright."

There's a simple answer to this apparent contradiction, and it's all to do with "outright". The government makes the case that while the number of distinct Sure Start centres has fallen, a lot of this is due to restructuring and the actual change in service provision is minimal.

'Sure Start' was a project first implemented by the Blair government. It provides centres across England providing childcare, family support, health advice and access to wider services. Both Labour and the Coalition still support the provision in principle, and the current administration says it's provided the money to maintain a network of centres.

The figures Labour uses can be pieced together from various sources. We know that in April 2010 there were 3,631 Sure Start Centres in England according to the Department for Education (DfE). From the same place we also know that at the end of April this year that number was 3,116, over 500 fewer centres. The government currently record 3,053 Sure Start centres, 578 fewer than in 2010.

Education minister Liz Truss calls that figure "misleading". The reality - she says - is that 45 centres have closed outright, the rest have simply been merged together and others have opened since 2010.

The wider picture shows both that the government is spending less on these services, and that there's less of them about.

The funding is confusing. What used to be Children's Services Grants spent by local authorities became Early Intervention Grants and will shortly be scrapped and merged into a new Business Rates scheme. However, the government's own comparison says:

"The allocations for Early Intervention Grants in 2011-12 represent an average 10.5% reduction compared with the predecessor grants in 2010-11."

The government says it is giving local authorities the flexibility to respond to local needs, and that since their inception in 2011/12, the early intervention grants have grown in real terms.

It's harder to get a picture of the practical effect of all this. The figures, from the Childcare and Early Years Providers Survey, only go up to 2011. However we do know that full day care provision across all the children's centres fell from 800 full day providers in 2010 to 550 the following year.

The same survey tells us that, the number of registered childcare places at children's centres also tailed off from 40,300 in 2010 to 28,800 in 2011.

When the government used these figures in parliament, they argued that this fall "may have been affected by increases in the broader supply of full day provision," with fewer children in sure start but more elsewhere.

That increase is real: between 2010 and 2011 the number of full day care providers overall actually rose from 16,700 to 17,600.

It's not clear how well this explains the drop in Sure Start places: the rise in overall provision has been going on since at least 2006, but the number of children's centres has been falling since 2009.

So all parties' figures are correct but none are particularly informative on their own. The government acknowledges its funding has fallen and there are signs of decreasing provision, but as yet, we don't know what's happened since 2011.

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