Children’s Centres could do better, says public service watchdog

22 December 2006

Sure Start Children’s Centres need to do more to improve services for fathers, and to meet the needs of other groups at risk of being overlooked, according to a value-for-money audit conducted by a public service watchdog.

In its analysis of Children’s Centres’ progress as of September 2005, the National Audit Office found that most families who used them were happy with the quality of services provided, valuing their role as one-stop-shop providers of advice and social networks. The NAO also found that Centres were making services more relevant to the needs of lone parents, teenage parents and ethnic minority parents in areas with large minority populations.

But auditors – and Children’s Centre staff themselves – felt they needed to do more to identify and provide outreach services to families with high levels of need, and the NAO found that ‘less progress was being made in improving services for fathers, parents of children with disabilities, and for ethnic minorities in areas with smaller minority populations’.

Some families – including those already using some Children’s Centre services – lacked awareness of the full range of services available, and wanted more accessible, clearly signposted services.

Focus groups held with non-users of Children’s Centres revealed that some dads felt services were ‘more appropriate for mothers’ needs’ and ‘not for people like me’. Some fathers also felt that staff were ‘less pro-active and less willing to allocate resources towards helping them rather than mothers, even though some were single parents with clear support needs as sole carers’. Football clubs, DIY classes and other sports groups that encourage parental play with children were felt to be good ways of attracting fathers.

The NAO made a series of recommendations for Children’s Centres, local authorities and their partners, and the Department for Education and Skills, including:

  • More focus on disadvantaged families
  • Better analysis of the cost and utilisation of Centres’ activities
  • Better coordination by local authorities
  • Improved partnership working
  • Better performance management data.

To read an executive summary of Sure Start Children’s Centres go to
http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/06-07/0607104es.pdf; the full report can be downloaded at
http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/06-07/0607104.pdf.

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