Committee of Public Accounts Press Notice


Publication of 38th Report of Session 2006-07

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“The Sure Start children’s centres bring together early education, childcare, health and family support services in a way that has not been done before.  It is essential that the large amount of expenditure on the programme results in real and demonstrable improvements to the wellbeing of young children and their families. 

“Action is needed on three fronts: commitment of all the partners, so that the centres do not fail because one partner does not play its part; effective management, to build services families want to use and make them sustainable; and focus, so that the services really do reach the most disadvantaged families.

“Centres work by bringing different organisations together to help families. Effective partnerships with the health sector are vital. The rapidity with which centres are being established has made it difficult to establish these relationships.

“Centre managers have a key role. They have to make partnerships work and get a firm grip on expenditure, outputs and outcomes to get the right services to the right children. They cannot do all this themselves and need support and advice in business and financial management. This has to come from local authorities but they in turn have their own capacity problems - they struggled to deliver the first 1,000 centres. 

“Of the centres visited by the National Audit Office, only one third had made a concerted effort to reach the most disadvantaged families.  Getting services out into the community to address disadvantage must be central to the ethos and practice of every children’s centre. Unless all centres identify and support children living in the most deprived circumstances in their community, they will fail in their main purpose.” 

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 38th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health, examined the progress of the Sure Start children’s centre programme and whether it is on track to achieve its aims.

Sure Start children’s centres are multi-purpose centres that bring together childcare, early education, health and family support services. They are designed for use by families, parents and carers of children under five and may be based in schools, health centres, community centres or in their own building. Public, private and voluntary organisations work together in children’s centres to provide a wide range of services from childcare to health visiting, employment advice, parenting advice and toy libraries, for all young families, but with a particular emphasis on improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged children.

The Department for Education and Skills (the Department) spent £2.1 billion on Sure Start local programmes and children’s centres and related programmes up to 2006. It funded some centres directly until March 2006, but from April 2006 local authorities took over planning and managing the children’s centre programme in their areas, and the Department will be allocating £1.8 billion to local authorities for children’s centres from 2006 to 2008. There were around 1,000 centres in September 2006, and local authorities are responsible for raising this to 3,500 centres by 2010.

Local authorities allocate funds to children’s centres in their area and manage the children's centre programme, which involves establishing new centres, and either running existing centres directly or supervising their running by other public, private or voluntary providers. Managers of children’s centres work with very different organisations (providing services in their centres as wide ranging as family support, public health, childcare and employment advice) which have widely differing working practices and need to work together in a way they have not done before. Some partnerships, for example to provide children’s centre-based health services through Primary Care Trusts and employment advice through Jobcentre Plus, have been slow to develop. Staff at children’s centres must also be aware of all the services not provided from their centre that could potentially benefit local families and be able to advise or refer them accordingly.

Local authorities reached the target for establishing the first phase of children’s centres late, and setting up further centres by 2010 will stretch their capacity further. The Department has provided additional funds for training early years’ professionals, but there is a risk that the 2,000 people undergoing training as Early Years Professionals and 800 as centre leaders will not be sufficient for the centres required in second and third phases of the programme.

Many centres need more support in financial management. There are considerable differences between the sums that different centres spend for each family using key services-for example averages of £7 to £20 for each family seen by healthcare staff-and a lack of understanding of what the unit costs of activities should be. There is limited evidence that spending is applied where it is most needed. The Department was slow to produce guidance on performance measurement and monitoring. Under Local Area Agreements, which can give more local freedom to move resources between services, it is important to have robust local systems to measure performance that should underpin assessments of cost-effectiveness.

While most of the early centres are in relatively disadvantaged areas, only one third of those visited by the National Audit Office were proactively seeking out the most disadvantaged families in their areas. Parents are generally happy with the services that are provided, but smaller ethnic minority communities, single fathers and children with special needs are less well served. Families with children with disabilities in particular need better information on what services are available for them, and advice on accessing services not provided from the children’s centre.

Notes for Editors

1. Contact details for requests for further comment from Mr Edward Leigh are provided below. ISDN facilities are available for broadcasting purposes.

2. The full text of the Committee’s Conclusions and Recommendations is attached to this press notice.