Despite a derisory ‘consultation’ exercise by the Wiltshire Council, few people seem to know that we are about to lose a valuable resource for parents and children in Marlborough and the surrounding villages.
The proposal to close the centre was mentioned, but not discussed, at the Area board and there has been one meeting for parents who use the service at the centre. There is no visible information about this consultation anywhere in the town. In the local library there are no posters, no leaflets and no copies of the consultation document. Not even a reference copy.
When I asked a librarian about this she looked it up online and gave me the website address. When I asked how people, who may not have access to a computer or computer skills, were expected to engage with this consultation she offered to print out a copy at the cost of 10p a page (£1.60 in total).
Sure Start programmes were set up by the last Labour Government and offer a range of services to families with young children, including help for parents wanting to find work, health care and family support. In April 2010 the number of Children’s Centres across the country was 3,631. Under the Labour Government funding for these centres was ring fenced.
In 2013 under the coalition government this protective ring fencing was removed. The funding was incorporated into the local authority settlement and the number of Children’s Centres fell to 3,055.
There are now no official figures of the number of Children’s Centres that remain as this information has been erased from the government website. Before the General Election the (then) education minister Liz Truss ordered the details to be removed as part of a “data cleansing” exercise. But Official Department for Education figures, obtained from a parliamentary answer, show nearly 500 centres have been shut in the last three years.
Despite a pre-election promise by David Cameron that he would not axe them, in communities across the country Sure Start centres are closing or opening for shorter and shorter hours.
The Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, a leading children’s charity, has argued that “cuts to basic early support now will only result in increased costs in the future. Without the vital support of children centres to the poorest children and families, we are simply neglecting the seeds of more costly problems later in the shape of troubled families, crime, substance abuse and unemployment. Investing in the children’s centres simply makes sense – not only are we investing in our children, we are investing in our future”
The Children’s Centre in Marlborough offers classes in parenting skills, breast feeding, money management and more. It is a place where mothers and babies meet and health visitor clinics take place. It occupies a very small building, but provides a central location where parents from surrounding villages can access the centre in a single bus journey. Staff from the centre provide an outreach service to the most vulnerable families in a very wide catchment area.
Marlborough may appear an affluent area and on some indices it is, so it is easy to forget the pockets of rural deprivation on our doorstep. In the local infants school 25 per cent of pupils are on pupil premium (a measure of low income families). Nearly one third of the children deemed under the official test to be in poverty in the Marlborough area are 0-4 year-olds (see Marlborough News Online 2.10.15). Cuts in Tax Credits next year will increase the burden on low income families and force more children into poverty.
Closure of the Marlborough Centre will dilute and fragment the services which are currently available. Partnership relationships between local agencies, which have been built up over recent years, will be broken. Any cost savings in closing a building will be transferred onto the users of the services. The nearest centre will be in Pewsey. Public transport in this area is very expensive if you are on a low income.
Marlborough has relatively better public transport links with surrounding villages than the villages do with each other. It is difficult to negotiate buses if you have a toddler and a baby in a pram. Having to catch two buses, one into Marlborough and another bus to a surrounding village, may be too expensive and time consuming for some parents. Many families will lose access to the service completely.
Children’s Centres provide open access services. By avoiding the stigma often associated with highly targeted services, they are more likely to be acceptable to “hard to reach families”. They are also able to reach those families just below the radar of assessed need, who may be experiencing difficulties that could be alleviated with the right support at the right time. They provide a high quality, structured, Ofsted measured, preparation for primary school.
Gradually, and perniciously, this government is eroding vital services to low income families. They are increasingly targeting services only to the very poor. So the poor pay whilst the rest of us are largely unaware of the consequences.
The start of life is a crucial time for children and parents. The ‘consultation’ on cutting our Sure Start programme ends on November 6.
Vice Chair Devizes Constituency Labour Party