SPECIAL REPORT: Northamptonshire children’s service shake-up proposes to reduce opening hours

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Plans to target children’s centre services towards those who “most need help” could leave the rest of the county cut adrift, some parents fear.

The proposals being put forward by Northamptonshire County Council aim to deliver its universal children’s service “in the right place and at the right time”.

Announcing the plans, operational director at Action for Children, Laurie Long, said this meant a greater focus on families experiencing domestic violence problems, those that are involved in substance misuse, and families that are out of work, among others issues.

Both service providers – Action for Children and Spurgeons – said they wanted to concentrate their resources on delivering more home visits to such families.

But critics of the plans said cutting the opening hours of a walk-in children’s centre and handing some services over to libraries would cut out a service for parents who do not fit into the ‘vulnerable’ bracket.

A petition is already underway in Rushden over the reduction of hours at children’s centres in the town. Young mum-of-two Emma Thacker, 24 helped to organise it.

She said: A children’s centre isn’t just a place where you can go in and play with the children. We go in for advice, for support, for a shoulder to cry on. A lot of the mums I talk to say they do not want to go into a library, because the other people in there tend to want quiet, not a crying baby.

“We just feel pushed out because we are ‘okay’.”

The council’s cabinet member for children and education, Councillor Heather Smith (Con, Oundle) said the plans were not about focusing services solely on early intervention in tough homes.

She said libraries would offer many of the same universal services, such as mother and baby classes, and said many libraries have longer opening hours than current children’s centres.

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DIARY DATES FOR PUBLIC MEETINGS

Meeting dates include:

2pm, Wednesday, November 19, at Duston Community Centre.

4pm, Tuesday, November 18, at Brackley Leisure Centre

6pm, Wednesday, November 26 at Long Buckby Children’s Centre in Long Buckby Community Centre.

10am, Thursday 27 November at Blackthorn Community Centre.

1pm, Tuesday 18 November at Towcester Children’s Centre in towcester.

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CENTRES SET FOR REFORM

Proposals to change the opening hours of children’s centres across Northamptonshire and ‘relocate’ under used facilities have gone out to consultation today.

The county council, which contracted out the management of children’s centres to Action for Children and Spurgeons in June,is proposing to move facilities at Highfield in Wellingborough; Nene Lakes in Earls Barton; Manor in Raunds; Brixworth in Daventry and Roade in South Northamptonshire, to ‘more suitable venues’.

Details of the proposals, published on the council’s website today, also detail plans to launch ‘outreach venues’ in church halls and community centres and transfer over services currently offered by the centres to local libraries.

Both Action for Children and Spurgeons also propose to carry out more home visits to ‘vulnerable families’.

A number of meetings are set to take place around the county over the coming months for parents to have their say on the plans.

Speaking on the proposals deputy leader of Northamptonshire County Council and cabinet member for children and education, Councillor Heather Smith, (Con, Oundle) said the plans were not about saving money – as the children’s services budget has been frozen at £10.4m until 2017.

“A year ago this council agreed to change the focus of our children’s services as part of our response to Ofsted’s inadequate rating of our children’s services.” She said.

“We know that we haven’t been good enough at helping families in need of support and many of those families’ situations deteriorated to crisis point requiring social worker involvement.

“When we awarded new contracts over the summer to Action for Children and Spurgeons, we asked for a greater emphasis than before on working in communities and with families in their homes.

“This inevitably means that less time is spent in the Children’s Centre buildings so the consultation proposes that we change opening hours.

“Some buildings would remain as they are, most would see a reduction in the hours they’re open and in the case of five centres, we’re looking at moving services to entirely new venues that are better situated for outreach and community work.”

As an example, in Northampton North the proposals state universal children’s services would remain at Kingsthorpe library.

Spurgeons, which runs the contract in that area, would “continue to maintain a full-time presence” at the Kingsthorpe Children’s Centre though the firm plans to use buildings at Parklands and Penfold on a reduced timetable for services such as midwifery and health visiting.

As an addition it would run some children’s services St Matthew’s Church, Bradlaugh Fields, Heather’s Tea Room and St David’s Church room.

Paul Ringer, director of children’s services at Spurgeons, said: “Spurgeons hopes that children’s centres will become community hubs and we will do this by encouraging other local voluntary organisations and community groups, including the development of parent led groups, to use the centres as a base for delivering sessions.

“We will be using a range of outreach venues, such as church halls and community centres, alongside children’s centre buildings.

“Our vision for children’s centres is that they are not just simply buildings but are a wide range of accessible services for children, their parents and carers and the wider community.

“By using outreach venues we hope to promote accessibility of services by ensuring that services are in areas convenient to local people and to reach those families in greatest need.”

However both Spurgeons, which runs 15 children’s centres in the county, and Action for Children, which runs 30, said the restructure of its services would likely lead to redundancies.

“We are currently re-designing our staffing models to reflect the new service delivery models,” operational director at Action for Children, Laurie Long, said. “There will likely be reductions at management levels and in administration.”

Details of the proposals have been published on the council’s website today at www.northamptonshire.gov.uk/consultations.

People can take part in the consultation by completing the online questionnaire at www.surveymonkey.com/r/ChildrensCentreSurvey2014

A request can be made for a questionnaire at to CCConsultation@northamptonshire.gov.uk. Completed questionnaires can be posted to Early Help & Prevention, Samita Shah, Room 140, County Hall, Northampton, NN1 1AY.

The consultation will run until Friday, December 19. Feedback will be reported to the county council’s cabinet in February 2015.

If approved, the changes will take effect from April 2015.

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New ‘community hubs’ to open in town – but hours reduced elsewhere

NORTHAMPTON NORTH:

Universal children’s services would remain at Kingsthorpe Library.

Spurgeons, which runs the contract in that area, would “continue to maintain a full-time presence” at the Kingsthorpe Children’s Centre, although the firm plans to use buildings at Parklands and Penfold on a reduced timetable for services such as midwifery and health visiting. As an addition it would run some children’s services at St Matthew’s Church, Bradlaugh Fields, Heather’s Tea Room and St David’s Church room.

NORTHAMPTON CENTRAL:

As is the case currently, universal children’s centre services would be delivered at the libraries in the town centre, St James and Far Cotton. Action for Children is not making changes to the use of the Gloucester, Spring Lane and Vernon Terrace buildings. There will also be additional community venues ‘based on local circumstances and need’.

NORTHAMPTON EAST:

Universal children’s centres services would be available at libraries in Abington and Weston Favell. Action for Children would maintain a full-time presence at the Ecton Brook, Blackthorn and Thorplands Children’s Centres.

Buildings at Headlands and Abington would be open for midwifery and health visiting on a reduced timetable. Additional venues would be made available at the United Reform Church in Abington Avenue.

NORTHAMPTON WEST

Universal children’s centres would be delivered in libraries at Duston, Hunsbury and Wootton. Spurgeons would keep a full-time presence at the Camrose Children’s centre.

Midwifery and health visiting would be available at the current children’s centre buildings at Duston, Wootton, Hunsbury and Upton Meadows on a reduced timetable.

Spurgeons would also use buildings such as Eldean Childcare, Berrywood Church, Camp Hill Community Centre and Hardingstone Village Hall as well as venues in Kings Heath and Montague Crescent.

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Labour: ‘Cut hours and you cut services’

A reduction in children’s centre opening hours and staff numbers can only mean a reduction in the services they provide, according to the leader of the county’s Labour group.

Opposition leader Councillor John McGhee (Lab, Kingswood) said purpose-built children’s centres – which provide stay-and-play sessions for children, young mother’s support groups, breast-feeding advice and a host of other services for parents and their tots – are a vital community resource.

He said the county council should focus on delivering children’s services in the current buildings and agreed with many mums that those with money, drug, alcohol or domestic violence problems should not be given greater access to the services.

He said: “They are saying we will use outreach centres, but they will be too small surely. They won’t be fit for purpose and many parents won’t travel to the new destination.”

And with both providers Spurgeons and Action for Children set to make redundancies, Councillor McGee questioned how the proposals could broaden the services both charities offered.

“I certainly believe this represents a reduction in services,” he said.

However, Paul Ringer, the director of children’s services at Spurgeons, said children’s centres were not simply buildings. He said: “They are a wide range of accessible services for children, their parents and carers and the wider community.”

He added that with limited resources, prioritising vulnerable families was the right ‘philosophy’ to take.

He said: “Across the model nationally, we are looking at a system which is under pressure. The dilemma is looking at how these resources are best used.

“It’s important that we intervene with vulnerable families early. I believe that is the right philosophy and it is one we are committed to.”