In August 2014, the way forward seemed clear.
After services for kids in Northamptonshire were labelled ‘inadequate’, county children’s centres had to be better at picking up on families before they reached crisis point.
Therefore, Northamptonshire County Council decided libraries would provide the fun sessions for under fives in future, leaving the children’s centres – now run by the likes of Spurgeon’s and Action for Children – to deal with targeted families.
But more than a year later, a damning report written by Healthwatch Northamptonshire suggests the scheme is in trouble with libraries seemingly suffering from a lack of ‘staff, volunteers, space, facilities and expertise’ to carry out the open sessions.
But by far the most concerning line was that children’s centre staff revealed they are worried about a “lost generation” of families needing early help.
Healthwatch believes there could now be three groups of families. There are a small group who use library under fives services and a group of targeted families who use children’s centres.
But a third, larger group which now accesses neither service is the issue. They previously relied on the informal network of support built up through the activities at children’s centres. Activities to which they are now “effectively being denied access.”
Healthwatch said: “This group has had a safety net removed and is likely to form a larger cohort needing access to targeted support services in the future.”
How worried should we be? Some at County Hall believe the sample size is too small to draw definite conclusions (especially only a year in), and that things have improved since the summer, when the report was carried out.
Nonetheless, the impression given by the report is that things may have regressed.
One of the issues seems to be the stigma now attached to visiting children’s centres means a way of noticing early problems (and for mums and dads to casually ask for advice) has been lost.
A parent governor of an Early Years Centre said the focus on specialist and targeted children had stigmatised both the centre and families.
One parent summed up the point by simply saying: “It’s not for normal families any more.”
So some feel the only reason to use children’s centres is if you have a problem. But were children’s centres really the only way of spotting the early signs of trouble?
Dr Akeem Ali, the director of public health in Northamptonshire, insists not.
He said: “What happens in libraries and children’s centres is by no means the limit.
“Problems can be spotted by school nurses, children’s doctors, GP’s grandparents, and neighbours.”
And it does seem that children’s centre staff believe they were getting to the right families most of the time.
However Healthwatch Northamptonshire is adamant that there could be a group of children in danger of slipping through the net, the very scenario the council was seeking to avoid.
The Healthwatch report says: “There is an unknown number of families and children who are not accessing libraries or children’s centres, which may lead to a greater need for targeted and specialist services in future.
It adds: “The main concern apart from ‘why was it done?’ and ‘what money has been saved?’ is ‘what will be the future of the families and children being missed?’”.
That is what the county council must now investigate.
Recruitment of library volunteers will be reviewed by the council
SHIFTING services from Northamptonshire children’s centres to libraries “has had a negative impact”, according to Healthwatch Northamptonshire’s report.
The watchdog visited 14 children’s centres and 17 libraries in May, June and July and talked to families, staff and volunteers about services for children aged five and under.
The key findings in the report are:
* Although libraries are welcoming to families, they do not have the space, facilities, staff, volunteers or expertise to run open access family services.
* Staffing levels are low across all the libraries Healthwatch visited, given the additional functions for libraries.
* Volunteers to run the children’s sessions are difficult to recruit.
* Families that may need help do not appear to be going to either libraries or children’s centres.
A Northamptonshire County Council spokeswoman said: “The changes we introduced have enabled us to provide support in the right place at the right time and to provide help to families where they most need it – in or near their homes.
“We’re already addressing many of the issues and will be looking at library facilities, the timing of activities and training and recruitment of volunteers.”