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The impact of children’s centres: studying the effects of children's centres in promoting better outcomes for young children and their families

Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England (ECCE, Strand 4)

The six year Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England (ECCE) study was conducted between 2009 and 2015. It is based around a number of linked Strands and has produced a series of reports. This penultimate report describes and summarises the main results from the Impact study (Strand 4). It will feed into further analyses that investigate cost effectiveness (Strand 5). The impact results are based on analyses involving over 2,600 families registered at 117 Phase 1 and 2 children’s centres serving disadvantaged communities in England. These analyses draw together data collected by earlier Strands of the evaluation, linking surveys of user families and information about children’s centres.

The ECCE research seeks to provide formative evidence on practices in the provision, delivery and use of children’s centres and their services between 2011 and 2013, and has explored perceptions of their impact from stakeholder groups, including both users and providers. Interviews with children’s centre staff in 2013 suggested that children and adults attending ‘Play and Learning’ activities received a number of benefits as a result of their participation (Evangelou et al., 2014). For example, children were reported to develop skills which supported their ‘Personal, Social and Emotional Development’, ‘Physical Development’, and ‘Understanding of the World’; as well as school readiness and social interaction. Adults were reported to benefit from improved parenting skills, greater knowledge of child development, and increased confidence in parenting, as well as receiving more general support for their personal needs. Parents attending the children’s centres in 2013 also gave similar examples of perceived benefits for their children (including improved ‘Personal, Social, and Emotional Development’, as well as improved ‘Physical Development’). There were also high levels of satisfaction within children’s centres, with the vast majority of interviewed parents indicating that they were “very happy” with the services that they received (92% of parents; see Evangelou et al., 2014 for further information).

This report builds upon previous ECCE research by evaluating the impact of children’s centres in improving measured outcomes for a broader sample of user families than investigated in the earlier fieldwork strands. These outcomes (family, mother and child) were chosen to reflect the aims of children's centres regarding improving family functioning and providing children with a better start to school. Thirteen outcomes were measured through a longitudinal survey design (Strand 2 of the evaluation) that recruited a sample of user families that were registered at a named children's centre with a child aged 9-18 months (mean age 14 months) and followed up to age 3 plus (mean age 38 months).

The underlying rationale for the introduction of children’s centres was to support all children and families living in particular disadvantaged areas by providing a wide range of services tailored to local conditions and needs. This evaluation has focused on children's centres that were set up under Phase 1 and 2 of the programme, Phases which targeted the most disadvantaged areas. The original intention of children's centres was to maximise reach, and many services were intended to be available to all families with young children who were living in such neighbourhoods. Children’s centres would thereby have an inclusive purpose rather than being available to only those families regarded as the ‘most needy’. Thus, potential users would not be stigmatised by attendance because at least some services were open to all families and children (see Sylva et al., 2015). Having said this, children’s centres were also intended to assess local needs by studying the characteristics of local communities, and undertaking outreach to attract and serve the ‘most needy’ families. Towards this aim, some services were therefore targeted to particular groups of high-risk families (e.g. teenage parents, workless families etc.) The definition of 'needs' and factors that might be deemed to make families vulnerable is open to a range of interpretations including high financial disadvantage; family or child characteristics including parental needs such as mental health problems, or parent-child relationships; ethnic minority status; child health or behaviour problems (see Lord, Southcott and Sharp, 2011, for further information).