Warning Over Children’s Centres

The Government’s flagship children’s centres must do much more to help teenage parents and single mothers, according to a new report. The National Audit Office (NAO) said most families who use the Sure Start children’s centres value them but the jury is still out on whether the £3.2 billion scheme represents value for money.

The children’s centres must work harder to make services such as baby weighing, health checks and careers advice available to the families who need most help, the NAO said.

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, said: “Though it is too early to tell the long-term impact of Sure Start children’s centres on children’s lives, we do know that families value the services they provide. It is vital that the services reach the most needy members of our communities.”

Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, called for much better information on whether the children’s centres were proving cost-effective. “There is as yet a glaring lack of information on the cost-effectiveness of the centres and the services they provide. With the numbers of centres increasing so quickly it is vital to know exactly what services we are getting for the taxpayers’ money,” he said.

“The NAO found that fewer than a third of the centres it investigated were “proactively identifying and taking services out to families with high levels of need”.

These groups included lone and teenage parents, disabled children’s parents and some ethnic minority families in areas with small minority populations.

Ministers set up Sure Start children’s centres to bring together childcare, early years education, health and employment services under one roof.

The Government wants 3,500 centres to be open – one for every local community – by 2010.