Children’s centre closures will ‘reduce safe spaces’ say social workers

The Caterpillar Centre in Woodbridge is among those set to close entirely. Picture: ARCHANT

The Caterpillar Centre in Woodbridge is among those set to close entirely. Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Katy Sandalls

A social workers’ association in Suffolk is calling for a rethink on a planned shake-up of children’s centres, claiming that it will reduce the availability of safe spaces.

Conservative cabinet member for children's services, Mary Evans, said she would rather spend money o

Conservative cabinet member for children's services, Mary Evans, said she would rather spend money on staff to help people than buildings. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Suffolk County Council will next month make a final decision on changing children’s centres to ‘family hubs’ which will offer support for families of 0-19 year olds, instead of the current 0-5 offering.

It will also provide more outreach services, but mean that some centres drop to part-time hours while others are closed entirely.

MORE: Final family hubs proposals outlinedCabinet member for children’s services, Mary Evans, said that the move would save around £435,000 on building costs which could instead be spent on 12 outreach workers that could help those in the community hardest to reach.

Mrs Evans said she would “rather spend money on people working with people, than buildings”, but the Suffolk branch of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said those buildings represent safe spaces for families.

Jack Abbott, from the opposition Labour group, said more and more people were speaking out against p

Jack Abbott, from the opposition Labour group, said more and more people were speaking out against planned changes to children's centres. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Branch chairman Julia Winkless said: “We recognise the benefits of increasing provision to cover a whole family approach, and we agree that there is a need to increase special educational needs and early years provision; however, we do not see this as an either/or decision, and the current proposals are effectively taking with one hand and giving with the other.

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“While people do provide services, buildings are also important as they provide places where people can go to access support and build social networks outside of their homes and are an important part of building resilience and leading healthy lives.”

The branch said the proposals will reduce available safe space for vulnerable families, place more emphasis on individual support rather than helping build social networks, and have a “disproportionately negative impact on those living in less urban areas and those who do not have a car”.

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But Mrs Evans in her response said: “As we have seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, it is people who make the difference for vulnerable families and not buildings.

“The network of family hubs being proposed and the increased reach from our outreach offer across Suffolk has been carefully designed to reflect the fact that this is a rural county and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable.

MORE: Children’s centres revamp decision delayed as error found in report“It is important to understand that as a result of taking this approach, we are able to reinvest the money we would otherwise be spending on buildings to focus on providing outreach sessions in community buildings, and on employing more staff to support our most vulnerable families.

“In nearly every case where the buildings are being re-purposed the early years settings, which will be taking over the current building, are keen for us to retain a space and presence. These early years settings will be providing places for our disadvantaged two years olds.”

Mrs Evans said some outreach sessions would be as community groups to help people build the social networks, but would not be appropriate for everyone, with some needing more one-to-one support in their homes.

Jack Abbott, spokesman from the council’s opposition Labour group said: “We are seeing more and more people - parents and carers, children’s centre staff, social workers – all raising serious concerns about the planned Tory cuts to Suffolk’s children’s centres.

“The ‘evidence’ that has been provided so far fails to prove their changes will deliver better outcomes for children and families. As we saw when the plans were shelved at the last minute, even the people pushing these cuts do not have full confidence in their analysis. They simply do not have any credibility.

“The BASW makes it clear that there is a disconnect between the new service Suffolk County Council is claiming it will offer and the actual reality.”

Report error explained

Suffolk County Council had been due to make a final decision on children’s centres on July 14, but withdrew the item from the agenda at zero hour because of an “administrative error” in the reports.

The cabinet had not explained the error at the time but chief executive Nicola Beach has now clarified the issue.

According to Ms Beach, one of the appendixes with data on levels of use included a table describing the number of children within a centre’s reach area but who were going to a different centre.

However, this was actually showing the number of children living outside the centre’s catchment who were coming in to use it.

MORE: Children’s centre changes not about savings, says councilShe added that “details for every centre did not fully reflect the number of carers who may visit particular centres”.

It was felt that the error was significant enough that a decision could not reasonably be made until the correct data was provided.

A decision is now due at the August cabinet meeting.

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