Early Help - Response to ESCC consultation on children's centres

A number of constituents have contacted me regarding East Sussex County Council's Early Year's consultation which could see the closure of local children's centres and the transfer of two nurseries out of Council control.

My response to the consultation is as follows:

 

I am the MP for the Bexhill and Battle constituency which will be impacted by the closure of four children’s centres and the potential transfer of two Council-run nurseries to the private sector.

I have had a large number of constituents contact me regarding this consultation. I therefore visited the Children’s Centre in Egerton Park and Cygnets nursery to find out more about the services they provide and how the proposed changes may impact families with pre-school children in my constituency.

My concerns and those of my constituents are as follows:

Children’s Centres are an immediately recognisable community hub for local families with pre-school children. They are known as the place which provides guidance, advice on parenting skills and sign-posting to other forms of support for those facing difficulties with parenting or other issues in their lives.

The decline of local toddler groups run by churches and local groups across the area mean there are fewer places for parents and carers to meet, share experiences and offer peer-to-peer support. The shortage of these groups also limits the opportunities for very young children to learn and develop key social skills before starting pre-school or school.  This means that the free parent/carer groups and sessions run by the Children’s Centres are needed more than in the past.

Whilst ESCC proposes to continue to provide support to the most vulnerable families, there is a risk that other families with young children will find themselves isolated without an accessible and welcoming place of support.  It should not be assumed that the families most at risk of experiencing parenting and family difficulties are those from deprived backgrounds.  Post-natal depression, parenting challenges and relationship issues affect all levels of society. These families may find themselves being overlooked especially if they present themselves as coping during their infrequent contact with GPs and health visitors. Often, it is observing families in settings outside the home where problems are noticed by key workers and trained volunteers. It is also where they may feel more comfortable to talk openly about the difficulties they face and learn that they are not alone.

Closure of these Children’s Centres also means the loss of a central point for help, advice and support for wider family and friends who are aware of a family’s difficulties. They will find it more challenging to know where to go for help.

If the two nurseries pass into private control, then some of the most affordable high quality childcare facilities in Bexhill are likely to be lost for local families.  I attach an email from one of my constituents which clearly explains how affordable childcare has changed their family life and aspirations for a better future.

The Children’s Centre in Egerton Park was built following a strong community effort to support families in Bexhill. That this resource should now be lost is a great blow to all those who were involved in its creation and who received national recognition for their efforts at the time. It is also a great loss to one of the most deprived wards in my constituency.

The Children’s Centre in Ticehurst serves a wide rural community where there is limited access to public transport and opportunities. I attach an email from a Ticehurst parish councillor which explains in far more detail than I could the impact of the proposed closure on the local community. This is of great concern.

In terms of the actual consultation exercise, a number of constituents have contacted me with their concerns that they are being asked to comment on a consultation that has not provided full enough information. They also comment that the nurseries’ running costs are not truly representative and therefore difficult to scrutinise and compare. They have criticised the wording of the consultation and believe that the questions restrict what responses can be given.

Having visited nearly all the primary schools in my constituency more than once since being elected to Parliament, as well as a large number of nurseries and pre-schools, I believe that I am sufficiently well-informed to comment that the loss of these early years facilities will have a direct impact on our schools. Pre-school providers and teachers tell me that an increasing number of parents do not understand their basic parenting roles and responsibilities.  Many children are not toilet trained by the appropriate age, have not learnt basic behavioural standards, lack good oral communication skills as well as key social, learning and concentration concepts.  On arrival at primary school, the reception staff are therefore focusing their attention on getting these children school-ready rather than  being able to begin teaching them. I am informed that these issues are not limited to problem families in areas of deprivation, they span families from across all social backgrounds and income levels.  Good support for all parents in understanding their responsibilities in helping their child to develop both physically and mentally, is therefore more important than ever.

It concerns me greatly that many resources and support for families continue to be cut back as they are not statutory obligations for the local authority. I do believe that the withdrawal of these services will have longer-term impacts on our social services, schools, NHS and the benefits system. Helping families give their children a good start in life can only be an investment in our area’s future.

I know that these are very challenging times for the County Council as budgets are squeezed and our adult social care bills continue to rise.  As you know, I continue to fight for a fair funding system for local authorities in areas such as ours where council tax and business rates receipts are limited. I also appreciate that the Council would not be looking to re-provide or outsource these services if funding was not such a challenge. I have spoken to some dedicated Council staff who are passionate about their work and would rather be increasing their services to families rather than reducing them.

I would ask that the Council very carefully considers the responses to this consultation and the criticisms of the consultation exercise itself. I hope the outcome will be that these services are retained for local families and children.