An Oxford University study says children’s centres across England have successfully reached out to support vulnerable families in disadvantaged communities, especially in supporting parenting skills and confidence
Organised activities, such as 'Stay and Play' sessions where parents and their children played and learned songs, were linked to small but significant reductions in parenting stress, improvements in mothers’ health, and better learning environments in the children's own homes.
Children's centres operate in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to provide a wide range of services tailored to local conditions and needs, but they are also intended to target the most vulnerable families. The Oxford study shows children’s centres with the best funding and staffing levels did reach families in ‘most need’ – the poorest households and families with dysfunctional parent-child relationships.
Centres appeared to be less effective at supporting unemployed parents into work and improving children’s health. The report shows that overall there were better outcomes for parents and families than for children as most centres do not provide childcare directly (in keeping with the government’s Department for Education guidance). Nonetheless, children who went to school-led centres did better at learning complex vocabulary; while those at centres supported by partner agencies increased their reasoning skills. The research also links improvements in children’s development (cognitive and social skills) with family use of childcare services, saying local childcare was signposted and promoted to disadvantaged families using children’s centres.
We find that targeting extra services towards disadvantaged families in disadvantaged neighbourhoods promotes better parenting, health and social skills.
Professor Pam Sammons
Children’s centres with the best funding and staffing levels linked with improvements in the lives of families in 'most need'
The research points out that across the period studied, the better funded children’s centres were more successful both in boosting the social skills of children and improving family functioning compared with centres where staffing levels or services were reduced. These effects though relatively small were significant and positive, and greatest for families with higher levels of financial disadvantage. The research suggests greater stability in terms of how the centres are staffed and run may play a part. It says better resourced centres also appeared to attract more of the most disadvantaged families in the locality.
Researchers studied the finances and staffing of centres from 2011 to 2012 to measure the impact of resourcing. The report warns, however, that since 2012 other evidence nationally shows that further budget cuts have led to reduced services and staffing, with reorganisations and closures of children’s centres affecting services in many local authority areas.
The research is based on interviews by NatCen Social Research with more than 2,600 parents and 300 staff from more than 117 children’s centres across England. Parents were interviewed three times – from when their child was one to three years old. The team analysed the benefits of the centres on outcomes for mothers and children separately, as well as families overall.
Researchers found that the most disadvantaged families went to children’s centres for an average of around five months longer than less disadvantaged families, and for a total of 38 more hours in total. The most disadvantaged families were also the least likely to use other services outside children’s centres. Although children's centres were also intended to support the most vulnerable families, staff were often concerned that they did not necessarily have the training and experience to support those with complex needs, including mental health problems.
Principal investigator Professor Pam Sammons from Oxford’s Department of Education, said: 'Our findings show that children’s centres make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged families across England. We find that targeting extra services towards disadvantaged families in disadvantaged neighbourhoods promotes better parenting, health and social skills. Children's centres support parents and families, helping to mitigate the powerful effects of disadvantage on life chances. It is important to build on these findings to ensure that such benefits are not lost.'
Co-investigator Professor Kathy Sylva, also from the University of Oxford’s Department of Education, added: 'Earlier research from the same study showed how popular centres are amongst residents in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Staff told us that the open-access, walk-in activities encouraged vulnerable families to take part because they did not feel there was a stigma attached to using the centres. Preventative work with families can head off more serious problems that could otherwise put them on the lists of social welfare agencies.'
Dr Emily Tanner, consortium lead from NatCen Social Research, said: 'This report marks an important milestone in the six-year evaluation, providing insights that can help improve services for parents and children. It builds on earlier findings from the evaluation that can be found on the NatCen website.'