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Flagship children's centres fail to help most needy, study finds
Lucy Ward 19th December 2006
Fewer than a third of the government's flagship new children's centres are reaching out to the neediest families they are meant to target, a National Audit Office study published today says. The report into the Sure Start centres - which are intended to provide a one-stop range of services for preschool children and their families - found that most failed to identify the most disadvantaged families in their areas and offer them support.
Teenage mothers, parents of disabled children, some ethnic minority parents and other particularly needy groups are least likely to visit a children's centre to use services such as healthcare or parenting advice provided there, so the services need to be taken to them, it says.
But only nine out of 30 children's centres visited by the NAO - all in the country's most disadvantaged areas - actively targeted so-called hard to reach groups, and few had a system for identifying those most in need of help.
The findings are troubling for the government; moves to extend the Sure Start programme to all families have been widely promoted by Tony Blair. There are plans for 3,500 by 2010.
The NAO report found that more than half of the local authorities in charge of children's centres did not monitor their performance or check costs. There was no close relationship between spending and the number of families using key services.
Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, said: "With the numbers of centres increasing so quickly it is vital to know what services we are getting for taxpayers' money, and make sure that the services provided by children's centres are the right ones."
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