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Sure Start Children’s Centres are valued by most of the families who use them, according to the National Audit Office. The families reached by children’s centres are some of the most disadvantaged, though the early signs are that more still needs to be done to reach and support some of the most excluded groups. The costs of centres, and of activities in centres, vary widely, and local authorities and centres that the NAO visited needed to understand their costs better and assess whether they were using their funds cost-effectively.

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Those were the main conclusions from today’s report to Parliament which finds that good progress is being made in creating children’s centres which bring together a range of services for pre-school children and families. The full effectiveness of the centres will be measurable only in the long term but so far a thousand centres have been built in deprived areas and the programme is exceeding its target to reach 650,000 children by the end of March 2006.

The NAO interviewed 191 centre and local authority managers and visited 30 established centres as well as meeting parents. Centres were raising the quality of services and making them more relevant to the needs of lone parents, teenage parents and ethnic minorities in communities with large minority populations. However less than a third of centres were proactively identifying and taking services out to families with high levels of need in their area, including lone and teenage parents, disabled children’s parents and parents from some ethnic minorities in areas with small minority populations. These groups are typically the hardest to reach and are least likely to visit a children’s centre to use the services provided there.

Reflecting the relatively recent establishment of children’s centres, they and local authorities had as yet collected only limited data to assess cost-effectiveness. Over half (56 per cent) of the local authorities consulted were not monitoring the performance of centres and a similar number (52 per cent) were doing no work to identify the cost or cost-effectiveness of services. Local authorities and the centres themselves need to direct resources where they would be most effective. The NAO found that there was no close relationship between spending by centres and the number of children and families using key services.

To provide an integrated service, organisations that have previously operated independently must share information and resources. This is a significant challenge and will require local authorities and a range of agencies, particularly Primary Care Trusts and Jobcentre Plus, to work more closely together to deliver children’s centre services.

The report makes recommendations to improve the delivery of services within the centres. These include projects to reach identified disadvantaged groups; training staff in financial expertise and new ways of working; centres and local authorities establishing the cost of activities; enhancing relationships with partner agencies; and better local monitoring to secure value for money.

The NAO report also contains details of a model used by one local authority to allocate resources, and gives examples of good practice in reaching families with the highest needs, forming effective partnerships and monitoring performance.

“Though it is too early to tell the long-term impact of Sure Start children’s centres on children's lives, we do know that families value the services they provide. It is vital that the services reach the most needy members of our communities. For the future, local authorities and the centres should focus on gaining a better understanding of their costs, and on working effectively with other agencies to get the maximum value from the resources available through children’s centres.”

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO


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