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does a Sure Start guarantee a sure future for childrens centres?

14 September 2009

The Sure Start programme has been at the centre of the Governments recent reforms of childrens services. With National Sure Start Childrens Centre week this week, and the 7th Annual National Sure Start Conference fast approaching, it is apparent how far the programme has come since it was first introduced.

The first Sure Start Childrens Centres were established in 1999 and, ten years on, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) is launching National Sure Start Childrens Centre Week to celebrate the successes of Sure Start Childrens Centres and promote the services they offer.

As the centres are encouraged to hold open day events and generate publicity and participation in the wider community, we briefly examine the progress of these valuable centres and some of the practical issues which have cropped up from experience in advising on elements of the legal issues with the programme.

The story so far

In July 1998 a White Paper entitled Modern Public Services for Britain was published. It made a recommendation that new Childrens Services should be introduced. It was hoped these services would be multifaceted in nature and improve the lives of children and parents from areas in need of these types of services.

This was followed up by a Green Paper, Meeting the Childcare Challenge in 1998 which set out the National Childcare Strategy, and subsequently the Every Child Matters Green paper in 2003.

Originally, it was intended that there would be 250 Sure Start Local Programmes by March 2002. However, following early success, a 10-year strategy for childcare, published in December 2004, pledged that by March 2010 there will be a Childrens Centre in every community.

A successful start

With the March 2010 deadline fast approaching, Childrens Centres are appearing in communities with startling speed. National Sure Start Childrens Centre week hopes to ensure that these centres are made as successful as possible within their local communities. This includes launching initiatives to promote awareness of what they are doing, utilising the resources available at these centres and at the same time making sure the community are aware of what extensive help and support they have right on their doorstep.

Much of the evaluation into the success of the centres may only become possible once a generation has passed through their doors, but early research into their progress has produced some positive results. For instance, a 2008 report by Ofsted into the progress of Childrens Centres1 showed that the services delivered to the community had a very positive effect on the lives of the children and parents and many of the users felt the services on offer were very valuable.

Further, a more recent Ofsted report published in July 20092 showed that the successes were continuing, stating that nearly all of the centres had established an effective balance between providing integrated services that are open to everyone and those that are targeted towards potentially vulnerable families.

Securing the future success of childrens centres

Whilst the rapid expansion of the centres means that the DCSF is on track to meet its target of 3,500 centres by March 2010, the logistics for those commissioned to set the centres up are complicated, time consuming and sometimes appropriate locations for the centres can be difficult to secure.

For example, to date Childrens Centres have been procured through a variety of different methods including traditional procurement, specific new builds and partnering arrangements with other organisations. Whilst many projects run smoothly and to plan, sometimes the urgent need for services in the community has resulted in centres opening before formal arrangements and legal documentation have been finalised.

Perhaps it is at this stage that the providers professional advisors could help more and alleviate early problems? We have, in advising on and dealing with the property side of securing Childrens Centre premises, come across various problems (and solutions) to some interesting questions.

For example, while centres can often be located on land already owned by a local authority, i.e. a school site, sometimes they may be located on land owned by other bodies such as in community centres or on parish council or church land. As a result, negotiations with bodies who are not Sure Start partners, or who are not fully familiar with the programme, can be protracted due to the fact these bodies are unaware of the obligations placed on the service provider.

The tremendous success of the Childrens Centres has meant there has been a strain, not only on the service providers themselves but also on the local authorities corporate and property departments in drafting bespoke contractual agreements to govern the occupancy of their buildings by non local authority personnel, or in dealing with non Sure Start partners to secure occupancy of their premises.

There also appears to be no uniform approach taken by the Government or local authorities to the drafting of key legal agreements, or even any real guidance on an encouraged form or structure, so that there is consistency across the country.

It would be very useful if the DCSF could provide some additional guidance to assist local authorities (and other bodies involved) in setting up the centres so they are aware of the various requirements that need to be considered and incorporated into the legal documents. Perhaps developing skeleton precedent documents that could be used uniformily across the country could be an effective way to aid the procurement process of Childrens Centres?

Solutions to some of the above problems can often be found by a round table discussion with the partners and their advisors. Sharing of information and experiences by service providers and their respective professional advisors can also go a long way to helping agree uniform approaches to obstacles and problems and can set the tone for a more partnering approach towards resolving the legal issues.

Of course, the issues mentioned above relate only to a handful we have encountered, and so we would like to hear other views that you may have on the development of these centres, and the methods your organisation has used to tackle the challenges and problems you have no doubt faced.

1 How well are they doing? - the impact of childrens centres and extended schools - OFSTED (January 2008)2 The impact of integrated services on children and their families in Sure Start childrens centres - OFSTED (July 2009)

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