All over the country, Surestart Children’s Centres lie closed, empty or replaced with private services. In Norfolk, it wasn’t until October 2019 that Children’s Centres closed their doors for the last time. A year prior, the local Council held a public consultation on closing 80% of the centres. Proposals were to replace them with centralised, lesser, mainly virtual services. Around 5,000 people responded to the consultation (including me) and the results were overwhelmingly in favour of keeping centres open. The Council ignored it and voted to close the centres. But this was almost 3 years ago – why should new parents now care?
It may seem a little “look what you could have had” to reflect upon services no longer present. I get it. I should start by saying: that’s not the intention of this writing at all. Instead, it aims to highlight for new parents what they deserve. All of the services I, and other parents, received through Children’s Centres should still be available. They should also be free, local, convenient and proactively offered.
My community midwife, who understood how totally bewildered I was at the prospect of having a baby, recommended I register with my local Children’s Centre. So I did. It was a 3-min walk from my house and was a purpose-built building on the campus of a school. I filled out a quick form, dropped it off, and was given a brochure full of schedules, classes and workshops.
A standard week at my local Children’s Centre
On a Monday morning, I entered the centre for Baby Explorers. This was specifically a class for non-walkers and saw staff dress the playroom with sensory toys, and show parents how to use them. Perhaps more important, they asked us questions about ourselves and encouraged us to interact. If you felt like talking, it was a great place to meet other parents. If not, no probs – you could just quietly play with your baby. This class was free to attend. Like others the centre offered, was aimed at a specific age group for the most appropriate development and interaction opportunities.
On a Tuesday morning, we went to our local library. It was a little further a walk but staff from the Children’s Centre hosted two ‘bounce and rhyme’ sessions there; each aimed at a different age group. I was pretty mortified at the idea of singing and dancing in public but my son loved it, so I quickly ditched the embarrassment and got involved. As on these days the usual large playroom wasn’t hosting groups, it instead hosted a drop-in clinic for those needing to see a Health Visitor. This allowed for health checks, weighing and measuring, and any discussions of a healthcare nature that didn’t need a doctor present. There were also a Speech and Language Therapy team on these days working with families who required their services.
On a Wednesday, the Children’s Centre’s schedule was fixed around workshops and private bookings. A staff member showed me their Sensory Room, which was available for hire – for no cost, of course. I booked a half-hour slot every week and saw my son fascinated by the giant lava lamp, light-up toys and fluffy carpets. Where my premature baby rarely opened his eyes for the brightness of the playroom in classes, he would always peek about in the darkened Sensory Room. He adored it.
Thursdays introduced us to Messy Play, a sessions I was very grateful not to have to host in my home! Highlights included coloured spaghetti, cornflake play, painting, cake decorating and even an incident with glitter and shaving foam. A few baths were required that day.
The final day of the week was an session called Outdoor Explorers around the garden and outside play area. Indoors was still dressed with various toys if you wanted to stay in, but babies and toddlers could stride about around the garden, get messy and explore nature. It was a hit, and a good end to the week before we all went home and attempted parenting without professional help.
The catalogue of workshops the Children’s Centre offered were also really impressive, and we attended several. A four-week baby massage course saw me oil my son to sleep (and to poo) like an expert. Weaning classes taught me different food types and weaning options, and he happily tried chomping through avocado as I learnt. There were also cookery classes (for parents) and courses on parenting styles. All were free and open to anyone.
Ante-natal classes were held for local parents at the Children’s Centre, and when I admitted that I’d given birth too early to take any, a staff member invited me in for them privately. I took my new baby with me and worked through the curriculum one-on-one, without the fear of asking stupid questions in front of a large group of people.
The Pastoral Care offered by Children’s Centres
Perhaps the most important thing that Children’s Centres offered wasn’t its support to babies – but to parents too. Although I was confused, suffering from post-partum mental illness and absolutely terrified at messing up my kid before I’d found my feet parenting, my situation was actually pretty lucky. Undoubtedly, I would be in a very different place today if it weren’t for the support and care of the staff at my local Children’s Centre.
Children’s Centres looked to nurture and develop not just children, but families, too.
Children’s Centres issued bus tickets for those needing to but unable to afford travel. They gave foodbank referrals for families struggling to put food on the table. Confidential spaces were set up in them for a chat, or a cry. In the worst case scenario, these acted as safe spaces from abuse. The staff were qualified and experienced childcare workers who were able to spot the first signs of illness or other issues. If I’d gone in trying to cover up bruises, or my son wasn’t developing as he should, the staff would have been able to intervene and help or support.
Sometimes, families in need would turn up at the door of the Children’s Centre seeking help because they knew from the sign outside that it would be. Without the Children’s Centre there, there is none of this critical professional interaction for children who don’t attend formal childcare.
Of course, this support is difficult to present firm results on, in terms of ROI (Return On Investment). The impact Children’s Centre interaction and/or intervention has on a child’s life may not be measurable for 20 years; and when they were first created, it was understood that their success could not be measured in the same way other public services were. This understanding was seemingly completely lost when a new political party assumed power.
What services are now available in place of Children’s Centres?
What has replaced Children’s Centres that have closed depends on the local council provision. Where I live, there are a handful of Centres still open but none close enough for me to take advantage of. I don’t drive, and my nearest would be almost an hour’s walk (with a toddler in tow? LOOOOL, no thanks). However, without a Children’s Centre in each ward or locale, there’s a distinct lack of classes or places on them. Instead, most sessions are done virtually… although of course this is only of use to those who have the equipment to access them and don’t need face-to-face support.
If a family is struggling, they can request help over the phone or online. This must be requested and initiated by the family. Unless you’re already under social services care or being helped by your GP, Health Visitor or Midwifery team, you’d have to specifically make contact. This is, obviously, a far cry from having a proactive, qualified, helpful team of people ready to step in and offer help and assess need because they’d been able to interact with families in person.
Here, there is no ‘everything under one roof’ facility anymore. Support is fractured. The truth is that the new provision leaves cracks. And if even one family falls between these cracks, they’ve been failed.
I already can’t access Children’s Centres. How does any of this help me?
I get it. It’s frustrating, and quite frankly kinda annoying, to have to read about ‘the good old days’ full of service. It sucks. What is important to draw from this though, is that you deserve it. And so do the rest of your family.
If a local authority can provide all of these services with such a high approval rating from their community, they’re doing something right. You may not be feeling the lack of these classes, services or support; because you either feel you don’t need them, or you’re able to access similar elsewhere. This is a hugely privileged position to be in (and a good one!) – but it doesn’t help anyone else. Whilst the Children’s Centres were set up to help the ‘needy’, they were there for everyone with no discrimination. You’d be as likely to sit next to a ‘yummy mummy’ who also attended premium paid-for classes as much as you would a mum who was really struggling, reliant on food banks.
For local authorities to pull these services and offer no tangible alternatives is at best irresponsible – but at worst it’s dangerous. Children and babies are, literally, our future. If as a society we’re to achieve anything positive we need to give them the best possible start; and to nurture and look after those raising them. When councils provided these services for so long, why can’t they now? Who could agree that mental health is a priority, when new mums are unable to access support? If constituents are actually seen as human beings, why do targets have to be placed on their development akin to those of financial investments? If ‘community spirit’ is so important, why not listen to that community when it speaks?
Please, give a shit. Positive change can still happen, and you can help enact it.
Local elections are coming up and for many, the now sitting-empty Children’s Centres aren’t even a consideration, let alone a sentence on a campaign leaflet. Ask those running in your area what they intend to do to replace these services and help give ALL of our children the best possible chances.
If you’re lucky enough to have a Centre near you – use it! Tell others. Take advantage of the services on offer and be sure to spread the word too. You have no idea how much it may help someone else.
You deserve better than to only to be able to access sub-par state services. Your kid/s deserve better. Children’s Centres should never have closed – but those shut doors won’t stop me demanding support for families.
The header image to this blog was taken by BBC Creative, for Unsplash.