It’s hard to switch on the television or open a newspaper at the moment without hearing or seeing the reality of difficult funding decisions being faced by local authorities. As both a minister and a constituency MP, I have spoken to many parents and professionals about their local children’s centre services and it’s heartening that people value these services so highly.
Let me say once more that this Government is committed to the early years. We have ensured there is enough money in the system through the new Early Intervention Grant (EIG) to retain the network of children’s centres and there is already a Bill in Parliament which will make a reality of our commitment to extend free early education to all disadvantaged 2-year-olds.
As you know, this Government has an overall vision for public services that are locally led and locally accountable. This is no less true for the early years. That means we need to find the best ways to put people like you in charge. You have witnessed - and in many cases led and shaped - huge changes to early learning and care, and the expectations of parents and the public. But this has taken place in the context of significant central Government prescription. We now want to approach things differently and work more closely with you to ensure your knowledge and expertise informs us from the start.
I know I don’t need to persuade you of the argument that intervening early makes sense socially, morally and financially. Nowhere is this more true than in the early stages of children’s development. We have to keep reviewing and refreshing what we do and how we do it in response to changing pressures, knowledge and evidence. A new policy statement, to be published later in the year, will explain the context and set out our vision for reform. We want a system led by the professionals who understand how best to deliver services through pregnancy and up to the age of five, and for this reason we want you and others from the sector to drive the strategic vision.
Our approach is a genuine partnership, signalling the start of a longer-term shift to a new way of working. This is what we are calling ‘co-production’, and I have already brought together a group of individuals to think about our collective purpose, and sustainable, national, leadership, as well as specific issues of policy. My hope is that this steering group will help me and my officials develop a better way to achieve our shared goals, and define that new way of working for the future.
I am determined that focusing on this ambition does not distract us from our current challenges. We know the crucial role high-quality children’s centres play, locally in improving the lives of the individuals and families who use and love them, and nationally in reducing inequalities, intervening early to tackle problems before they become crises, and raising overall health and education outcomes. The EIG is designed to give local authorities the freedom to act more strategically and target investment early, to have the greatest impact.
Local leaders and managers are considering their budgets for next year and I want to see decisions based on local knowledge, expertise, and consultation with their communities. I’m really encouraged that in recent weeks increasing numbers of local authorities have made the public commitment that they will not close children’s centres - for example in Hertfordshire and Devon. Through reducing management costs, recommissioning services more efficiently and better strategic planning with local health services, local authorities are proving that innovative approaches can keep centres open and maintain services.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the most important people are the families and children using these services. I know this is a view shared by everyone working with children, and I thank you for your passion and ongoing commitment to making sure we ensure every child has the best possible start in life.