As has been widely reported, Oxfordshire County Council is proposing “restructuring” its children’s centres and creating a single service for all children under 19-years-old.
The proposal is to link what children’s centres do with families of children under the age of five to the services it provides through the Early Intervention Hubs for older children and teenagers.
One size does not fit all. The environment, skills and knowledge required to support the under-fives and their parents are entirely different from those required for older children and teenagers.
To combine the two could be extremely counterproductive and create risk of younger children copying from inappropriate role models.
Many of the agencies involved with families in Oxfordshire feel this is extremely short-sighted; many of the families that use the children’s centres feel devastated by this proposal.
Oxfordshire County Council currently runs 44 children’s centres in the county, including 11 in Oxford itself, and others stretching from Banbury and Chipping Norton in the north to Wantage and Wallingford in the south.
As well as the 44 run by the county, its grant maintains the independently-run Donnington Doorstep.
In addition, Oxfordshire runs a mobile children centre which can travel to more remote villages.
On its website, Oxfordshire County Council states: “Children’s centres are for children under five and their families.
“They offer a range of activities, play, information and support from professionals working in a wide range of fields, whatever their background or circumstances.
“Many children’s centres run activities especially for fathers and their children. They encourage parents and carers to join in to contribute to the life of the centre, to shape and steer its services.”
The services they provide are varied, depending on the size of the centre, but typically, as well as the “stay and play” sessions for parents and children and babies, they run health visitors and midwife’s clinics.
They do early intervention work with young parents, or parents who’ve not had good parenting themselves to try to turn things around for the next generation.
They offer breastfeeding and feeding and weaning support and they offer advice on debt, benefits and hold legal clinics.
They also run classes in adult literacy, IT and maths to assist those parents who have not managed to gain decent qualifications.
They support contact between children and the parent they do not live with and run dad’s groups; to refer to other agencies such as mental health services, where appropriate.
The council has stated this is only a proposal, but as a solicitor who has worked with many parents and families over the years who have kept their children because they have been assisted by these centres to improve the way that they have parented, or for those parents who have been able to see their children in suitable, warm, well-equipped centres as opposed to social services offices, I would certainly ask that this proposal is reconsidered.
As a former user of two local children’s centres, when my own child was a baby, I found it invaluable.
I found the support from other new mums vital, and was also heartened that I, a professional mum on maternity leave, was mixing with other mums and parents from different backgrounds.