Childcare on the cheap

Government-funded children's centres designed to help Norfolk's poorest families get the best start in life are being dominated by middle class parents, a new report warns.

Government-funded children's centres designed to help Norfolk's poorest families get the best start in life are being dominated by middle class parents, a new report warns.

Needy families are steering clear of many of the 36 Sure Start centres established around the county because they are suspicious of authority and of being branded bad parents.

But middle class mums and dads are “getting in first” for the services, which include childminding while they are working, crèches, nurseries, parenting sessions and social and support groups.

The government has spent more than £10bn over 10 years to establish up to 3,500 Sure Start children's centres, which were hailed as one of the keys to Tony Blair's ambition to lift children out of poverty.

A report by Norfolk County Council's cabinet scrutiny committee said there was “some way to go” to achieve the original aim of children's centres catering for the hardest to reach families in the most deprived areas.

Its chairman, Labour group leader Sue Whitaker, said the centres needed to be “more pro-active” in going into the community to tell families what they were missing.

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But one of the longest-serving children's centre managers hit back by urging councillors to “give them time” - and promised that they would see a “very different picture” once the centres had become firmly established and trusted.

The report, which comes two years after an interim report was published, welcomed the fact that Norfolk was on target to have all 36 centres open by the end of 2008 - with the latest one, at Litcham, officially opened yesterday.

But it added: “We do feel that the council has some way to go to ensure that the original aim of children's centres is met, to help families living in the most disadvantaged areas.”

The first 11 centres were built to serve Norfolk's 20pc most deprived areas, with the next 25 in the 30pc most deprived areas.

Similar centres are scattered across England. They are part of the government's aim to provide integrated education, care, family support and health services to give under fives the best start in life.

Ms Whitaker said: “If we put a centre in an area it's there because it is needed for the most deprived families. But it's the middle-class parents who are in there first because they think it's great - whereas others might be suspicious of something that's new and official.

“Because of that, we are not always reaching the people the centres are designed for.”

She said some centres were “waiting for people to come to them”, while others - including Seagulls Children's Centre at Gorleston - were getting information about children born in recent months and going to speak to the parents to tell them what was on offer.

Ms Whitaker said: “We would life to see more of the proactive approach.”

Ian Duckmanton, manager of Poppyland Sure Start children's centre cluster in north-east Norfolk, said: “The report talks about what we would call immature programmes, but if they go back in three years' time they will see a very different picture.

“A respected study concluded that it takes at least two to three years to establish a children's centre, then a further two years to engage on a meaningful basis with parents.

“So it takes five years to get from the start to a mature programme where parents understand what it is, trust it and use it.”

He added: “It has taken us that long to get to a position where we are seen by parents as normal. Before that the community had a range of views, including that we were just another initiative that wouldn't last.

“All families want to know what it is about. If they have complex needs, experience shows they are reluctant to engage with support services and even more so if they have anything to do with the council. But they will engage in the long-term - as long as the quality of services tempts them.”

The report, which focuses on early years development in Norfolk, will be discussed by the committee on Tuesday.