Children centre changes ‘hitting poorest families’, claim experts

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CHILD experts claim the watering down of Sure Start centres is hitting poverty-stricken families.

But bosses at Sunderland Council say that despite changes to centres in the city, they remain popular and well used.

Last year, thousands of families saw Children’s Centre services change as council chiefs battled to save £1.7million from their budget.

The council stripped 12 of its 17 centres of their official status in a bid to make the savings.

The undesignated centres continue providing activities as normal – but no longer have full-time reception service providing information and are no longer the subject to Ofsted inspections.

Sara Bryson is policy and business development officer for Children North East.

The 122-year-old organisation was set up to help tackle child poverty in the region.

She believes the impact of the watering down of Sure Start Services is affecting families.

“Families are getting to crisis point because there is no one to intervene.

“It’s a hard situation because, as the need for these type of services increase, the provision of them is decreasing.

“We did a project with families in Southwick. We discovered that for some, the only time they had ever left their community was when they were able to take a trip through the Sure Start service.”

Sharon Hodgson, MP for Sunderland and Washington West, said that while Wearside had faced some of the biggest cuts to Sure Start Centre funding, it was managing to cope.

“Next year the council’s budget will be 47 per cent smaller than it was in 2010, the sixth biggest cut of all councils.

“Against that backdrop it was inevitable that savings would have to be made.

“I sought and received assurances that parents in my constituency and across Sunderland wouldn’t face a loss of vital services as a result of these changes, and I trust that this is the case.

“Unfortunately, parents in other councils haven’t been so lucky.

“I’ve heard reports of centres having their budgets cut by 95 per cent, and qualified and experienced staff losing their jobs.”

Wearside’s Children’s Centres provide learning and play facilities as well as health and family advice.

There had been up to 12,000 people per month using the 17 centres.

But despite the changes, council bosses are confident families still know where to go for support.

Councillor Pat Smith, Sunderland Council’s cabinet member for children’s services, said: “Each of the city’s five areas - Coalfield, East, North, West and Washington - all have a designated Children’s Centre.

“Following a formal consultation exercise, the city council’s cabinet agreed to reduce the number of ‘designated’ children’s centres from 17 to five, though all 17 centres remain open and are delivering Children’s Centre services.

“The decision followed changes in Government funding arrangements and delivery responsibilities. The centres remain very popular with families and they continue to offer a range of activities.”

Twitter: @craigjourno