Features: January 23rd, 2015

Phil Neal talks about some of the essential steps children’s centres can take to help ensure they are meeting the needs of children and families in their community.

Recent figures suggest that the demand for services provided by children’s centres is on the increase. The 2014 Sure Start Children’s Centres Census produced by national charity, 4Children, revealed that over one million families are receiving regular support from the centres.

The figures indicate that more of the support children’s centres provide is reaching those who need it most too – with 67% of vulnerable families reportedly accessing services, a rise of 5% on the previous year.

This comes at a time when many children’s centres are experiencing an uncertain future. There have been media reports of a number of centres facing closure, while others are merging or undergoing restructure. Against a backdrop of constrained budgets, it has never been more important for children’s centres to understand what support they need to provide, how and to whom.

To offer the right balance of provision, it is vital that children’s centre managers get a good level of insight into the impact their centre is having on the community it serves.

Reaching the right children and families

More and more children’s centres are offering targeted provision to specific groups in their area. There might be a focus on providing services for parents with young children, for example, or offering a range of support to meet the needs of the most vulnerable families.

In some areas, the number of families who have registered at the local children’s centres can be relatively high, but this only tells part of the story. What staff really need to know is how many of these families are visiting the centre on a regular basis – and whether the services being provided are reaching the intended groups.

To support this, some centres work closely with the local authority to tap into the broad range of information already being recorded on children and families in their area. Staff have easy access to a wealth of data, such as postcodes, housing information or flags to families that are classed as troubled under the government scheme. This helps them to shape their support according to local need.

Being able to view address information alongside details about the ages of children in the family or whether there is a history of unemployment in the household can help children’s centre managers to get a clear picture of who is or is not accessing their services. This can also help them to spot any gaps in their provision or target their resources more effectively to reach those families most in need.

Having more information on the background and circumstances of parents who have not taken up their entitlement to funded childcare for two year-olds, for example, could help centres to identify the reasons behind this.

By doing this, one centre in the North was able to be much more proactive in communicating with these families. Staff found out that in many cases, parents wanted to return to work but were finding it difficult. The centre was able to put some additional support in place to for parents looking for work, to improve their CV or boost their qualifications and skills. As a result, the centre saw a 50% rise in the number of parents taking up the option of funded childcare.

By getting closer to the data available to them, children’s centre staff will get a broader view of the families they are helping on a day-to-day basis, and the services they use. This is essential to shaping the provision on offer and responding to the changing needs of the community.

Targeting areas of need

Key to the success of any children’s centre is to ensure it is regarded as a helpful resource that families will to turn to. But for some families in the most challenging circumstances, coming along to a parenting course or substance abuse support group held at the centre may not be as simple as jumping on a bus on a Monday morning. Levels of engagement will only start to increase if children’s centres offer the right balance of services and make it easy for families to benefit from them.

A local authority I recently spoke to identified that there were high incidences of families struggling with debt in the area. Working with the local children’s centre, a debt management day was set up aimed at helping families to address their issues. However, the turnout was disappointingly low.

By looking at the address information for the families who had not come along, it became clear that the centre was difficult for them to get to. The centre arranged for future events to be moved out of the main building, and were instead held in local community centres and churches nearer to the target area. This proved much easier for many parents to reach and, therefore, attendance of the events increased very quickly.

This focus on accessibility is crucial in the drive to ensure the most vulnerable families get the help they require – whether this is delivered in the children’s centre itself or closer to home. Without the ability to measure impact, it will be a challenge for any children’s centre to ensure it is regarded as a valuable resource by local families.

The importance of measuring what you do

In the most successful children’s centres, there is a keen emphasis on setting targets – these might be to raise the attendance of a toddlers’ play day or get more single dads to come along to a course on improving your computer skills. Importantly, whatever the objectives, centre managers need to ensure progress is being made towards achieving them.

Looking at attendance figures and other information such as the number of family support visits that have taken place in a week, for example, can help centres to track their initiatives and measure the impact they are having. This also helps them to see which services are working and what support might perhaps benefit from being tweaked. But staff need to have access to tools that take the headache out of data analysis to support this important work.

Some centres scrutinise the data they record on a regular basis. Doing this helps them to respond quickly to adjust their provision if a course is not proving to be as popular as was expected. But one of the most effective ways in which children’s centres can use their data is to share it with the whole team.

Getting everyone on board

Ensuring all children’s centre staff are working towards the same goals is critical to delivering top quality provision.
Sharing the details of specific targets for that week or month with all staff in contact with children and families through the centre is a great way to galvanise support and keep staff motivated. Some centres champion and reward success by displaying the centre’s achievements in charts or graphs where they can be seen clearly, by staff and families alike.

In these challenging times, it is critical that centre managers understand and respond to the changing requirements of the community. For some families, the local children’s centre could offer the lifeline they need when all else in their lives may seem to be failing.