Thursday, 5 March 2009

Funny business: what's happening to nurseries in Children's Centres?

I think it is highly disappointing that a number of Children’s Centres are having to close their nursery provision because of a lack of funding, and it has left me wondering if we need to think more clearly about what Children’s Centres are for. One of the nurseries which is to close is at Coquet Children’s Centre. Katie Chesterton, a parent whose child attends the nursery, has said that it "provides a really big part of the community and a great service and it is just a shame really if it is going to close."

For her, the nursery is part of the glue that helps to bind people together and support family life in rural Northumberland. Sure Start began with just this intention, to promote community development and provide services that would support children’s health and development. It was not long before this community focus started to lose out to a welfare-to-work agenda, at about the same time that Sure Start gave way to the Children’s Centre programme. Whilst growing up in workless households is a significant reason for child poverty, there is a difference between providing the best possible early childhood services for parents who have chosen them, and for parents who feel coerced into accepting them.

Every time the purpose and available funding for Children’s Centres changes, as practitioners we find ourselves caught up in an exhausting and demoralising process of ending one set of services and having to set up another. (And if that isn't exhausting enough, imagine how it must be to work in the health visiting service where a post is lost every 27 hours). A nursery is not just four walls and a garden: it is a community that will have been thought about, worked on and developed with professional skill and dedication.

But government guidelines push Northumberland Council into seeing it as a sort of a business, with a county spokesperson commenting that "day care provided in children's centres is expected to be financially independent".

I think we need to start with a principle, not a business plan, and that principle is that Children’s Centres are a public service, accountable to their local communities, for the public good. They should promote family life by enabling parents to make choices about returning to work, or staying at home with their children. There is no realistic prospect of making a profit or even breaking even by providing nursery education and childcare in poor or isolated rural areas: nurseries in Children’s Centres will not work if they are thought of as businesses.