Barry Sheerman MP, Committee Chair, said:
"To put at risk the pioneering work of the last 12 years would be nothing short of a disaster. The early years are when the greatest difference can be made to a child’s life chances and it is vital that investment in Children’s Centres is allowed to bear fruit."
The report says Children’s Centres are designed to address some of the most entrenched aspects of disadvantage, but the majority have been in place for less than four years. Evaluations of their impact will therefore only be meaningful over the long term.
Yielding to short-term financial pressure by reducing the number of Centres or pruning the range of services offered would be a mistake, the Committee says. Only a universal service can ensure that all vulnerable children get the access they need, and the wide range of support and activities provided to families is a vital feature of the programme. Stable funding is essential, the report adds.
The scale of the programme means important challenges remain. With a national network of Centres in place, there must now be a constant focus on raising the quality of staffing and services, and on improving the performance of Centres in reaching the most vulnerable families.
Partnership working with health services - and particularly with GPs - is patchy across the country, says the Committee. Children’s Centres must not be an optional extra for health agencies. The Government should lead by example by re-establishing ministerial responsibility for the Sure Start programme in the Department of Health as well as the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Committee says.
Information about value for money in Children’s Centres is still unacceptably difficult to come by, the report says. It adds that more must be done to determine the total resources being put into the initiative from all Government departments.